Lesley Riddoch: Fishing rights could slip through net

Leaving EU does not necessarily mean Scottish waters will then belong to our fishermen alone, writes Lesley Riddoch

Back in 1974, only eight EU countries had grazing rights in Scottish waters. Now that number is 28.

So which party is telling the truth about post Brexit prospects for Scotland’s fishermen?

A war of words waged last week over a letter to the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) from UK Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom, in which she pledged to “disapply the key elements” of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which are “most unpopular”.

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The SFF took that to mean the EU divvy-up of quotas and the right for other European fleets to fish in Scottish waters. If both became post-Brexit toast, it would indeed support Tory claims to be acting in the interests of Scottish fishermen. But two important caveats were highlighted by the SNP.

Leadsom also said the UK government was “committed to co-operation with other countries over management of shared stocks” and that “no decision has yet been made” on the extent to which the CFP would be incorporated into British law. In plain English that means a post Brexit carve up of Scottish waters is possible and bits of the CFP will find their way into UK law – the only question is which bits.

Since the bulk of voters can’t tell their monkfish from their megrim, the spat left most of us none the wiser - which is a shame.

Fishing would be a much more important sector of the Scottish economy if it was neither hidebound by the CFP nor controlled by Westminster – and that is achievable, though it currently suits neither the Tories nor the SNP to explain how.

When the CFP was devised in 1974, a Tory Government Minister famously described Scottish fishermen as “expendable” and fishing interests were traded to guarantee the supremacy of the City of London. The right to fish was embedded as a core part of the EU’s “acquis communitaire” – a form of freedom of movement and trade rather than illegal access to protected national assets like coal, grapes or hydro-power.

Back then only eight EU countries had “grazing” rights in Scottish waters. Now 28 do, and many trade their rights with coastal states like Spain.

As a result, 60 per cent of fish caught here is landed by foreign boats. Furthermore, EU quotas are fixed on particular species as if fish in the sea were like single crops in fields. But fish don’t organise themselves like that, so Scottish fishermen inevitably catch “out of quota” stocks they cannot discard and must now land and pay to have them destroyed.

Meanwhile, many west coast vessels claim Spanish trucks are filling up on the quayside, apparently unsupervised, with the very species they cannot touch.

This is also bad for marine conservation. Compared to the sophisticated management of fish stocks in Norway where fishermen pay a 1.3 per cent tax for highly accurate real-time data, stocks in Scottish waters are managed without access to such current scientific information.

Experts doubt that an independent Scotland could drive a much better EU deal than Britain – rules sharing access are too embedded in the way Europe works.

But does that mean that after Brexit, Scottish waters and fish will finally belong to our fishermen alone?

Probably not.

Firstly, EU members like France and Spain would have every incentive to demand high tariffs on fish imports from the UK. Indeed foreign boats could just keep fishing in “traditional” Scottish waters prompting Cod War-style confrontations at sea, according to former UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU, Andy Lebrecht, who makes this prediction about Brexit negotiations; “Access to markets and access to waters will be linked.”

Secondly, the English fleet traditionally catches fish in Irish, French and Norwegian as well as UK waters, and retaining access to them will be a key demand from English fishermen. There are already signs the UK Government plans to trade access to Scottish waters within the 12-mile limit. Theresa May has said she will quit the 1964 London Convention which allows foreign boats to fish between 6 and 12 miles – but only if Brexit talks fail. Owners of small family boats fear this means inshore access may be traded in Brexit negotiations because that won’t affect larger boats fishing at the 200-mile limit who have the biggest clout, the largest quotas and the loudest voices within the SFF. Small boat owners hoped Brexit might lead to a redistribution of quotas but large boat-owners are confident the Tories will simply translate the EU share-out, unreformed, into a new UK system.

Thirdly, other governments have agreed long term leases with the EU, China, USA and even private companies. Why wouldn’t the Tories consider this as a way to help pay down the UK deficit? Since international conservation treaties and the small size of the Scottish fleet might limit extra fishing by Scots, Theresa May could suggest there’s enough fish to justify “transitional” foreign access – if the price is right.

But there is a more appealing possibility.

Independent Iceland and Norway retain control to their fish stocks and access to the EU’s single market as members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area. Membership of this “halfway house” requires payments to the EU and freedom of movement and offers inclusion in EU-wide research projects - but crucially it does not saddle EFTA members with the Common Fishery or Agriculture Policies. Theresa May’s “not now” to a second referendum means Scotland will probably find itself dragged out of the EU with Brexit and may need to rejoin in stages as an independent state. The first stage could well be EFTA and EEA membership and Scotland could decide if that halfway house suits (like Iceland) or press ahead for full EU membership.

This flexible arrangement seems sensible for Scotland and would placate fishing communities but the SNP dare not propose it because 62 per cent of Scots voted to remain in the EU and if Nicola Sturgeon backs or even considers an alternative destination she could be made to look indecisive and undemocratic by a hostile press.

That’s a shame.

Elections mean politicians must appear convinced when they cannot possibly be. Who knows which European trading arrangement might be best for fishermen or for an independent Scotland in five or ten years time?

Meanwhile, SNP warnings about a post-Brexit carve-up of Scottish waters are legitimate but fishing is a more complex interest than either side will admit.