Oddly enough, the general election has given all of us focusing on Brexit a chance to breathe and look around. With government ministers out of their offices and knocking on doors, and the press swarming from one issue to the next in no particular order, we can take stock for once and see just how far we have come over the past 11 months.
Brexit has yet to be signed and sealed, of course, and having been sold down the metaphorical river before, the fishing industry needs no reminding that its hopes could be dashed at the eleventh hour. But at least there is hope, and that in itself represents a dramatic change from the previous 40 years.
Up until the Brexit vote, the industry was fighting simply to minimise damage. The idea of actually moving forward, even by a millimetre, would have been absurd.
When you pile up unworkable regulations in a system that cannot change its mind even when all agree that a rule is mistaken, and which hands powers to bureaucrats as far removed from the practicalities of running a boat or a business as it is possible to be, there is little to look forward to other than slow strangulation. From that point of view, the prospect of exchanging that regime for national, reactive and workable management is no small thing at all.
Importantly, too, the referendum result has turned welcome attention to the sheer wealth of our marine resources, dramatic recoveries in fish stocks in our waters and to our remaining fishing communities.
This is something new. For the past 40 years, and especially in the past decade, a strident ‘environmental’ lobby funded by multinational corporations and, scandalously, the EU itself, has been able to hog the headlines and airtime with a highly selective and misleading story of trashed fisheries, greedy fishers and ecological vandalism.
Unexpectedly, hearteningly, the Brexit vote has made big a difference here. What is absolutely not appreciated in Brussels is that communities like Shetland, which are committed to sustainability out of necessity, have done a remarkable job in hanging in there when so many other fishing communities have been wiped from our shores. The country’s surviving fishing families are not the enemy that EU green fanatics make them out to be; it turns out that in this country at least we are proud of them and can appreciate their gritty contribution to national life.
One of the abiding myths of the hated Common Fisheries Policy is that ‘at least it saved fish stocks’. That’s a bit like saying that the Black Death reduced urban overcrowding.
The CFP first allowed fish stocks to be reduced to desperately low levels and then addressed the issue with policy instruments so blunt that they often did as much to hinder as to help.
As it happens, our own fishers contributed greatly to stock recovery through their own efforts in designing selective gear and in pioneering voluntary closures of parts of our fishing grounds. And it’s the whole point of fisheries policy to arrive at sustainable communities and sustainable harvesting, not one at the expense of the other.
Consider this: our fishing industry is not subsidised and does not want to be. It has spent decades under the yoke of clumsy and sometimes contradictory regulations, imposed by a system that could not care less.
The bits that have survived are composed typically of small businesses run by highly entrepreneurial individuals, and often from families that have paid a heavy price in terms of human life. The sea conditions around these islands are often appalling, never forgiving, and the families earning a living from them deserve respect.
Perhaps it is simply that we do not like bullying, and especially when million-euro lobbyists find nothing better to do than try and bankrupt families on remote islands working in conditions they would never dream of. Perhaps the country is also starting to appreciate that we have succeeded, against all odds, in holding together the foundations of a world-leading, sustainable seafood industry of which we can all be proud.
Whatever the detail of the Brexit talks to come, and with all the ups, downs and twists that might mean, we now have the opportunity to end 40 years of hurt in our fishing communities. Despite the productivity and diversity of our fisheries, we lost a whole raft of them; thanks to the recovery of control over those fisheries and how they are managed, we can allow the survivors to demonstrate that our great maritime tradition has plenty of life in it yet.
Simon Collins, executive officer, Shetland Fishermen’s Association