Political intervention in the case of successful isolated communities is misguided and could do serious damage, says Simon Collins
Small is beautiful. Big is bad. There is no doubt that this simplistic mantra, repeated ad nauseam by some environmental NGOs, is appealing. Perhaps it plays on something deep in our evolutionary biology.
In fisheries management, which has received a disproportionate amount of attention from the environmental movement in recent years, this fear of the large translates into favouring small, inshore fishing vessels over “industrial” trawlers that operate offshore – and suggesting that these boats are at odds with one another.
The argument goes that artisanal enterprises catching fish in an ecologically sustainable way are being put out of business by giant boats busily driving commercial fish stocks to destruction. To prove their point, the NGOs cite largely unregulated fishing off West Africa, for example.
Where NGOs go, politicians tend to follow, especially where the fishing industry is concerned. And it is usually easier to meddle in one’s own backyard than someone else’s.
But it can be a big mistake to transpose impressions from one place to another. In the case of isolated communities that are either partly or wholly dependent on this activity, the resulting political intervention is liable to do serious damage.
Take Shetland. Just over 22,000 people spread over a handful of islands at the same latitude as the southern tip of Greenland, almost as far away from Edinburgh as Edinburgh is from London. More than 19 hours of daylight in midsummer, fewer than four in midwinter. No place more than three miles from the sea.
An island that works
In stark contrast to so many of Scotland’s island communities, this one works. It has had full employment for the last three decades or more, an annual economic growth rate of 3 per cent or so even during the worst of the recession, a low crime rate and a top-class network of sporting and cultural facilities. Shetland retains its young and looks after its old. It is a fine place to live.
Thanks to oil and gas? It might seem so, with exploration and development booms in the North Sea and West of Shetland in the 1970s and again today. Some 2,000 temporary workers, many housed in accommodation barges in Lerwick and Scalloway harbours, have been drafted in to build a new gas plant and overhaul an oil terminal that many assumed was on its way out. Around 10 per cent of the islands’ gross value added stems from this sector – a figure not to be sniffed at.
But the principal driver for the Shetland economy has been the same ever since anything like an economy emerged: commercial fishing. Even now, after 1,000 years of war, industrialisation, rural upheaval and globalisation, fish catching, aquaculture and fish processing generate around a third of Shetland’s economic output and directly employ more than a tenth of its workforce. Indirect, knock-on impacts multiply their importance, from marine engineering to transport and infrastructure.
This is based on three major advantages: healthy and diverse fish stocks in surrounding waters; generation after generation of fishing and seafaring expertise; and a continuously evolving fishing fleet that reflects the catching opportunities of the time.
Almost uniquely in the UK, Shetland has interests in all the main types of fishery, with its 175 licensed fishing vessels ranging from 60m-plus pelagic boats to whitefish trawlers, scallop dredgers and small, single-crew boats fishing close inshore. Unusually, too, almost all of these vessels are owned by the crews that work on them. The connection between Shetlanders and their fishing fleet could hardly be closer.
Shetland’s fishing tradition
In short, this very local industry forms its own ecosystem, to borrow a phrase from our green friends. Shetland’s small boats have no future without the engineering, transport links, processing, market relationships and infrastructure developed primarily for its larger boats; Shetland’s fishing tradition will not be maintained unless it retains the diversity that has kept its remarkable community afloat for so long.
For this reason, and quite apart from the practicalities of catching thousands of tons of perfectly sustainable mackerel in the open ocean, there is absolutely no sense in governments favouring any particular size or type of fishing boat over another. To do so would undermine the critical mass that allows the local fishing industry to function.
If a group of islands happens to have arrived at a particular balance to its fleet, in response to the fish it catches and without “helpful” advice from central governments, it beggars belief that anyone would want to distort that now. Shetland is the second biggest landing port in the UK, with more fish put down on its quaysides than England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. It is a success story to be celebrated, not an opportunity for misplaced meddling.
It is astonishing how many people far from the sea know all about it, and how many experts there are in deep-sea fishing. It is a shame that there are not as many experts in letting highly successful island communities get on with what they do well. If there were, the fishing industry in the Western Isles would not have been decimated, and no government would have fallen in with a bureaucratic nightmare in Brussels that is trying to do the same to fishing communities everywhere else.
• Simon Collins is executive officer, Shetland Fishermen’s Association