Bertie Armstrong: ending EU fisheries policy a good decision

With the Scottish Government election behind us but the EU referendum now upon us, the direction in which political choices will take the fishing industry is at a pivotal stage.
Fishing boats in Fraserburgh harbour . Picture: Alan MiliganFishing boats in Fraserburgh harbour . Picture: Alan Miligan
Fishing boats in Fraserburgh harbour . Picture: Alan Miligan

In this modern 21st century economy of sophisticated manufacturing, the oil and gas sector and financial services, it is all too easy to forget the important role that fishing plays in the overall scheme of things.

In simple economic terms, fishing in Scotland is worth over almost £500 million in landings alone – once you add the processing and aquaculture element, then the overall economic contribution of seafood is immense.

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Scottish seafood is in demand all around the world and the very name ‘Scotland’ is synonymous with quality.

Fishing supports employment in remote coastal communities and the sea’s harvest is also a renewable resource. When the oil and gas run out, the fish will still be there. As well as the economic input, fishing is also a crucially important means of ensuring our food security in a sustainable manner.

Indeed, it is all too easy to forget the vitally important role fishing plays in securing a sustainable supply of food for an expanding world population.

And before moving on to the EU referendum in more detail, it is worth quantifying this importance on both the national and international scales. Currently, around 17 per cent of the world’s protein consumption comes from fish. In a world where more than 800 million continue to suffer from chronic malnourishment, and where the global population is expected to grow by another two billion to reach 9.6 billion people by 2050, we must meet the huge challenge of feeding our planet while safeguarding its ­natural resources for future generations.

What’s more, provided the management of our fisheries is done correctly, seafood ticks all the right boxes when it comes to providing food to fill our stomachs. It is a tasty, nutritious and renewable resource, which has a lower carbon footprint than most other forms of animal protein production.

Fishing, therefore, on both national and international scales, is vitally important as a food supplier and also as an economic supporter.

As a primary industry catching a wild resource, you would think that fishing would be simple to manage. But nothing could be further from the truth and it is among the most regulated industries in the world; one in which at every turn there is bureaucracy and red tape.

Of course, the European Union, and the much-derided Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) are at the very heart of that, which is why so many fishermen are implacably opposed to both.

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This is hardly surprising and it is worth reminding ourselves why fishing takes a unique position in Europe, making it so different from other industry sectors. Sovereignty and jurisdiction (beyond each member state’s slim strip of territorial waters) is pooled and the EU uses the CFP to govern every aspect of the industry. That fundamental change – the trading of sovereignty for collective control – took place when we joined. Collaboration is vital under any governance regime, but non-EU coastal states such as Norway and Iceland retain jurisdiction and negotiate on their own behalf.

If the UK were to leave the EU, then the UK’s long-lost control over the greater part of the northern European fishing grounds would be restored. But there are other factors to consider in the balance. While we may regain control of our fisheries, the UK (like Norway and Iceland) would still have to set its own fishing opportunities in accordance with fish-stock science and through negotiation with other coastal states, including those still in membership of the EU.

Despite this, from the fishing industry point of view, leaving the CFP still instinctively sounds like a good thing – more so if the balance between that gain and the other effects of leaving the EU turned out to be positive – and, of course, presuming that the UK and Scottish home nation governments could do a better fisheries management job than the EU does at the moment.

But the whole debate is much more complicated than this, and the balance of benefits brought through membership of the EU also needs to be carefully considered – not least those provided by an open marketplace for our seafood products.

The free movement of labour within the eurozone is a contentious issue, but it is undeniably one that has benefited fishing and our precious seafood processing sector. These are all factors fishermen that will need to carefully consider before they cast their vote.

It is worthwhile, too, mentioning the new Scottish Government and where this will take us into the near future. Although it is early days yet, we are pleased that the focus of the new cabinet secretary post is on the rural economy. The new government in situ comes against the background of much positive news about our fish stocks, with the majority either increasing or in good health. Our mackerel fishery, for example, recently achieved the prestigious Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) ecolabel. And even the iconic North Sea cod fishery has now entered the MSC assessment process.

Haddock, saithe, herring and some other species have also been certified by the MSC for their responsibly managed fisheries.

But despite these positives, there are many challenges ahead, not least the phased introduction of the discard ban where it is essential that practicable and flexible management measures are put in place to prevent any negative impacts on the Scottish fleet.

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Under the discard ban, or landing obligation as it is known, all fish that are caught have to be landed and counted against the overall quota for that species.

A classic example of the potential problems that could arise is the impact of so-called “choke stocks”’, which are a particular difficulty in the demersal mixed fisheries where a variety of species are caught at the same time. Under such a scenario, if a species with a low quota, such as hake, has its allocation fully taken, boats will not be able to carry on fishing despite having plenty of quota left for other species such as haddock.

The discard ban, therefore, has huge potential to cause real upheaval and damage. It is essential that the Scottish and UK governments works closely with us on this, as well as the European Commission should we remain in the EU.

We would also like to see evidence-based decision-making at the heart of future fisheries management, for example in the designation and management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). We support MPAs as long as they are based upon science rather than emotional rhetoric. Indeed, our pragmatic approach towards this is illustrated by our recent support for a research and demonstration MPA around Fair Isle. Here an inclusive partnership approach was adopted involving all stakeholders.

In short, fishing and associated industries need a comprehensive support framework that will enable the sector to thrive, whether inside or outside the EU.

And whatever the outcome of the referendum, the full backing of the Scottish and UK governments is essential, too.

- Bertie Armstrong is the chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation