Communities want control of the fish they catch, writes Simon Collins
Results aside, one of the more surprising features of the Brexit and Scottish independence referendums was how divisive they were. They clearly still are, setting Scots against one another in a way that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.
So that’s bad news, as is the uncertainty created by the EU vote. In Scotland, and for perfectly understandable reasons, the confusion appears likely to last a little longer than in the rest of the UK. But as the government seeks what it can obtain from Brussels and London, many of our politicians lose their heads and officials take grim stock of the amount of work that now has to be done, it is worth remembering that some parts of the Scottish population have a bit more bounce in their step than they had before 23 June.
I’m talking about the fishing industry, of course, which largely voted Leave. Not because our fishermen are racist or anti-immigration, or because they are ignorant, unpatriotic or easily led. They are not anti-European, either. Quite the opposite, in fact: the Scottish fishing industry has had close links with the Continent since the Middle Ages, and places like Shetland have a long and proud European history that belies their geographical isolation.
The fishing industry’s frustration with Europe is not cultural at all but institutional. Many Remain voters will share their view that an inspiring dream of unity is being wrecked by largely unaccountable EU institutions. Not to mention a dangerously smug bureaucracy that has become very good at feathering its own nest and telling the rest of us what to do. The difference in the polling booths was not about recognising the EU’s shortcomings, but how serious those shortcomings are. For the fishing industry, they are far from academic.
Fishing is a bit of a special case when it comes to the EU. It was one of the few ways of earning a living in Scotland that suffered badly when Britain joined the Common Market, and it is one of the few business sectors today for which voting Remain would have been extremely risky.
You cannot reasonably expect fishermen to embrace a system that is bent on bankrupting them, that hands the rights to catch its most valuable stocks to countries outside the EU and that continues to frame complex regulations without the slightest interest in what works and what doesn’t. The few gains made in sensible management in recent years have come at the expense of Brussels rather than because of it. We’re continually fighting to obtain minimal concessions to sanity out there, to the point that even a moderately deluded regulation is greeted with a sigh of relief. Our people deserve a lot better than that.
We would all do well to acknowledge these things, and a little more respect for fellow countrymen doing what remains a demanding and dangerous job would be most welcome.
When the shouting dies down, and the insults fade, the fact remains that Scotland has just been handed an unexpected opportunity to assert control over its seas. This is no small matter, and the consequences for our coastal and island communities could be extremely positive.
Our fishing grounds are highly productive, with a staggering diversity of commercial species; by retaining the final say on access to these waters and how they are managed, the Scottish government could be in a position – at no cost to the taxpayer – to ignite a spectacular regeneration of rural areas that had been given up for dead.
Nobody over a certain age will have forgotten how many thriving Scottish fishing villages there used to be, and how coastal areas created jobs for their young people rather than exported them to the cities. The few exceptions, Shetland included, contrast dramatically with empty Scottish islands elsewhere, to the point that visitors will express amazement at any island or coastal town that does not depend on tourists in summer and government handouts in winter.
But think what could happen if Scotland insisted on fairer shares of its own fish stocks and managed its own seas with rules that made business as well as environmental sense. Norway, Faroe and Iceland all have far bigger seafood sectors than we do, either proportionately or in absolute terms, and our seas are by no means poorer than theirs.
In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, it was disappointing to hear comment about how valuable EU grants are and how much we’ll miss them. What is so unthinkable about coastal and island communities standing up all by themselves once more, and even contributing significantly to Scottish growth in the future? Has this country become so feeble that it cannot turn the sustainable resources all around it into lasting prosperity?
There aren’t nearly enough fishermen to swing Scotland’s constitutional position one way or another, and in the end the government of the day is there to do the best it can for the country as a whole. But what we can do is highlight the extraordinary value of Scotland’s seas and how much benefit the country could obtain from controlling access to them and managing them more sensibly.
It seems that some of us have got so used to the gloomy narrative of decline and dilapidation along so much of our coast that we’re struggling to deal with sunlight. It may have come from an unexpected direction, but our maritime communities could yet thrive on it.
• Simon Collins is executive officer, Shetland Fishermen’s Association