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Readers on the EU Referendum: ‘a quarter of England’s entire whitefish quota is now owned by a single Dutch super trawler’

In this last of a series of individual readers’ considered views on the issues being examined in the In-Out EU Referendum on 23rd June 2016, John Tulloch brings detailed information and insights into a key issue in EU membership – the fishing industry; and into a place few outside know anything about – Shetland.

Tomorrow, 20th June, For Argyll will publish a summary of the perspectives the five contributing readers made available, under their own names; along with a brief editorial perspective on the issue.

John Tulloch

As a member and former [founding] chairman of the Shetland autonomy group, Wir Shetland, I see the EU referendum from a primarily Shetland perspective. [Please note that I no longer represent Wir Shetland so the views expressed here are my own.]

Shetland’s biggest industry is fish, contributing over a third of the islands’ £1.1 billion GDP [2010]. Yet, over the years, the jobs and prosperity brought by the oil industry have eclipsed – to a degree – its importance.

Fish processing has largely closed down for want of affordable labour. A mere 13% of fish landed in Shetland is now processed there and even some fishing vessels are forced to import crews from abroad.

The isles have been sheltered from the recent oil price crash by long construction delays at Total’s vast gas plant at Sullom Voe, which artificially boosted the local economy.

However, construction work is now complete and the gas plant is in operation. BP simultaneously announced the cancellation of its proposed £500 million gas sweetening plant; and together these events will deliver a sledgehammer blow to the contracting and accommodation industries.

Hard times lie ahead and the importance of the fishing industry will once more return to the fore.

DSC_5879 copySo how has fishing fared under the EU?

Back in 1970 when Britain applied to join the EU [then EEC], a new law was passed a mere six hours before official acceptance of our application.

The Common Fisheries Policy [CFP], which confers ‘equal access to fishing grounds for all EU countries’, thus became part of the body of existing EU law, the so-called ‘Acquis Communautaire’, which new members are obliged to accept. The Heath government folded and accepted the heist, taking Britain into the EU on 1st, January 1973, thereby ceding control of Shetland’s [and UK] legendary fishing grounds to the EU.

A quota system was implemented to share the spoils and manage stocks of individual species. Britain’s share of the catch was dramatically reduced, inflicting grievous damage on the industry. Once flourishing coastal towns like Grimsby were hit hard and never fully recovered.

The decommissioning of most of the whitefish fleet and the imposition of the ‘days at sea’ rule were harrowing times and the latest initiative, the unworkable discards ban, is the last straw.

Fishing for whitefish, where multiple species swim and are caught together, as happens in Shetland and elsewhere, renders the quota system nonsensical. If a vessel has quota for several species but one species – eg hake –  is abundant [as now], then their hake quota is quickly used up. However, when they try to catch other species for which they have quota remaining, they cannot avoid catching hake. Neither can they sell it.

Hitherto such unwanted catch has been returned, mostly dead, to the sea, allowing fishing to continue, while keeping only the fish for which quota remains and discarding more along the way. Fishermen and the public were united in their dislike of this practice and campaigned for change.

The EU responded, precipitately, to a campaign led by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, with an outright ban on discarding – a policy revision currently undergoing staged implementation.

Fishermen must now land any unwanted catch ashore to be dumped – but it cannot be sold for human consumption and they are not allowed to give it away, not even to schools, hospitals or care homes.

This is lunacy. At least, discarding fish benefits the marine food chain by removing large predators from the sea and returning them dead, for consumption by other fish and small marine creatures. However, any such benefits are lost if the fish are ferried ashore and dumped to landfill.

Obviously, vessels cannot fish while they steam perhaps a hundred miles to land the unwanted catch so precious fishing time is lost and fuel wasted, not to mention, adding to the industry’s carbon footprint.

Commoditisation, the buying and selling of quota [a British invention], has compounded these problems.

When vessels to which quota was originally apportioned were sold, the vessel could be scrapped and the quota acquired to boost larger vessels’ allowable catches. However, it has also become a financial investment that non-fishermen and institutions can buy and rent to vessels, giving rise to the term ‘slipper skipper’ – an armchair investor who lives off fish quota income.

As a result, quota is now so expensive that new entrants cannot afford to join the industry making it virtually a closed shop; and the trend towards ever fewer, ever bigger fishing ships continues apace, to the extent that a quarter of England’s entire whitefish quota is now owned by a single Dutch fishing ship or ‘super trawler’. How must that grate with the disenfranchised trawlermen of Grimsby?

Other ways to manage fish stocks exist – like limiting ‘days at sea’, combined with temporary area closures, as is done in Faroe.

The key to effective stock management is receiving accurate, timely data over a period, enabling judicious management of Total Allowable Catches [TACs]. Given sound data, either method will be effective but the Faroese system has the advantage of catching more of what is abundant and less of what is scarce, a safeguard against inaccurate estimates for individual species.

Except for the repeal of the Common Fisheries Policy, of which there is no sign, escape from the quota system necessitates leaving the EU, which understandably, worries quota holders. What would become of their multi-million pound investments?

Pelagic fish – herring, mackerel etc, because they migrate vast distances, are regulated by the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission [NEAFC] which recommends the TACs and co-ordinate negotiations for those fisheries. Britain, far less Shetland, has no direct say in these talks. The EU meets with countries like Norway, Iceland and Russia to discuss and determine the TACs and other management measures.

And how has Shetland fared from this arrangement?

Very badly, indeed.

DSC_5394-2 copyMackerel stocks are immense. The skipper of a very large trawler described ‘skirting the edges of a shoal eleven miles long by three miles wide’, unable to trawl into its middle for fear of wrecking their powerful gear. And in any case, the total catch is limited. So much for the ‘timely accuracy’ of our fish stock data!

The non-EU Faroese, having little track record [history counts] in catching mackerel, decided they wanted more and unilaterally increased their TAC for mackerel [and herring] in their own waters. A David versus Goliath stand off ensued and EU sanctions were imposed. Thumbing their noses at the EU, the Faroese continued fishing flat out. A year later the EU capitulated, allowing Faroe to treble its allowable catch.

Faroese vessels now catch more mackerel in Shetland waters than the local fleet is allowed to do; and according to local fishermen – who despise Marine Scotland’s perfunctory effort to police Shetland waters – considerably more besides.

Shetland’s vital interest, fishing, would clearly be better served by leaving the EU which would, theoretically, restore control of Britain’s fishing grounds to Westminster. Sadly, our politicians cannot be trusted not to give it back again in departure negotiations. Faroese-style autonomy, a topic of growing interest in Shetland, is the antidote.

Greenland faced an identical situation when Denmark joined the EU in 1973 but immediately won autonomy [1979] and left the EU in 1985. Like Faroe and Iceland, they show precious little interest in re-joining.

By virtue of its geography, history and culture and the sheer scale of its fishing and oil industries, Shetland is unique among Scottish islands, a status of which the Scottish government appeared oblivious when they lumped Shetland into their forthcoming Islands Bill.

This at once conflated Shetland’s unique needs with those of all Scottish islands, causing sufficient dilution to render the Bill arguably irrelevant for Shetland. Indeed it is seen by many as deliberately intended to blunt the impact of the ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign [Shetland, Orkney and Western Isles] for increased local powers.

Many benefits would accrue to Shetland from winning Faroese-style autonomy, all related to the manner and effect of existing government.

Wir Shetland backed Tavish Scott [Ed: Liberal Democrat and former Scottish Leader] in the recent Scottish Election and fiercely attacked the SNP’s record in Shetland. Combined with Scott’s superlative campaign, the SNP’s once formidable election machine was smashed at the polls. They expected to win but Scott took 67% of the votes, almost three times the share taken by the SNP’s Danus Skene.

The message could not be clearer. Shetlanders are unhappy with the system – and party – of government.

By voting strongly to leave the EU, islanders can send a similar message, not only to Holyrood but also to Westminster and Brussels, that without real change  – like repeal of the CFP and a say in the management of their own fishing grounds – they will push for autonomy and the power to leave the EU.

The threat is clear and a precedent has already been set, Greenland, in 1985.

John Tulloch

Note: The photograph above, of the three fishing boats moored at Lerwick, the large yellow pelagic trawler, Charisma and the small whitefish boat in the act of trawling, are copyright Charles Umphray and are reproduced here by permission.

Previous readers’ views – in order of publication

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Related Articles & Comments

  • Pingback: For Argyll: ‘a quarter of England’s entire whitefish quota is now owned by a single Dutch super trawler’ – fisherynation.com

  • Correction: The above statement: ” a quarter of England’s entire whitefish quota is now owned by a single Dutch fishing ship or ‘super trawler’” should have read, “….. a quarter of England’s entire fish quota…”
    http://britishseafishing.co.uk/cornelis-vrolijk/

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

    John Tulloch June 19, 2016 9:19 pm Reply
  • The Separatists look as if they may win!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

    Nae Fear Here June 19, 2016 10:40 pm Reply
  • Thanks John – I enjoyed reading that – I’ve only really begun to get to grips with the fishing aspect of the EU in the last few months – and I think it’s one area where not a single person has been able to make a credible argument showing how the EU benefits our fishing industry.

    Maybe a reader can put a counter re: fishing – but I won’t hold my breath!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

    Jamie Black June 19, 2016 11:01 pm Reply
    • Jamie

      It is an area of discussion I am wary if engaging in as I have so little knowledge of it and I appreciate it is one of the biggest bones of contention for many many years (and therefore there are many people well versed in the arguments).
      From a purely simplistic level I would have thought some of the counter arguments surround

      1. The need to rebuild fish stocks (which is happening) therefore looking to secure fishing as a long term industry rather than short – medium term.
      2. Providing a degree of control/negotiation over who gets to fish in whose waters (and this goes for foreign vessels in British waters as well as British vessels in foreign waters.
      3. Do we not export a large amount of fish to the rest of the EU? Wishing away the EU might be cutting off our noises to spite our face if (and I accept its an if) this impacts materially on our ability to trade.

      Like I said it is not an area I have much knowledge of (hence why my points are so simplistic!) however like most of the pro/anti EU arguments I would wager that it is an area that needs review and ongoing consideration but I find it hard to believe it is an issue where one side of the argument is 100% correct and the other 100% wrong.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

      Integrity? June 20, 2016 12:30 pm Reply
      • Hi Integrity,

        Iceland and Norway sell their fish to the EU without any difficulty. They are members of the European Economic Area (EEA) and have all the perks of EU membership while retaining control of their fishing grounds.
        http://www.efta.int/eea

        In return they pay an annual sum, not to the EU budget, but to fifteen of the poorest EU countries.
        http://www.eu-norway.org/eu/Financial-contribution/#.V2foaVc4now

        They are also free to strike trade deals with other non-EU countries and pay into the EU budget for EU programmes in which they choose to participate.

        Should Britain do likewise, we should save rather more of our contribution than the £8-10 million net being talked about which we could then use as we see fit.

        Norway and Iceland, of course, sign on to free movement of labour however, I don’t see that as a showstopper – we have that if we remain in – since Scotland, especially the west and north, including Shetland, need more people – in Shetland’s case, to staff the fish factories we need to process more than the meagre 13 percent of catch currently landed in Shetland but which passes straight through.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

        John Tulloch June 20, 2016 2:01 pm Reply
        • Thanks John

          As I said I in particularly poorly informed on this issue and can’t really add much of value to the debate on it (although happy to read it). I do actually go to the Shetlands a few times a year (last time just a matter of weeks ago) and have heard many similar points made about EU policy on fishing by members of the fishing community and, as those most directly affected, I do place a lot of weight on their views on it.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

          Integrity? June 20, 2016 5:49 pm Reply
  • Very interesting, I have always thought that the fishing industry has been treated even worse than agriculture by the EU and British governments (and no better by the Edinburgh government).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

    Lundavra June 20, 2016 8:04 am Reply
  • If the fishing industry has been so badly done to why is every community in the North East Coast of Scotland full of fancy large houses built for fisher folk in the past thirty years? Fraserburgh is to have a whole new suburb of these houses starting later this year.

    I know a number of these families

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

    Graeme McCormick June 20, 2016 9:04 pm Reply
    • A point commonly raised, Graeme. The answer follows from the part of my article that covers quota.

      Fishing vessels are far larger and more powerful than they were in the past because every time an original vessel was sold, it was scrapped and its quota transferred to a larger one, leading to ever fewer, ever bigger vessels.

      The loss of catch share Britain suffered was colossal and led to the decommissioning of much of the whitefish fleet. Grimsby, mentioned above, reportedly once had 700 trawlers but now has only five.

      Many of those who survived have done very well but don’t forget they have made huge investments in their multi-million pound businesses. Anyone owning a business with turnover in the tens of millions might expect to have a fancy house. These include the ‘slipper skipper’ millionaires who rent quota and those with big boats and it isn’t about them.

      It’s about the volume of fish Scotland/UK loses as a result of the CFP, hundreds of £millions a year, and the locking out of young new entrants who cannot afford to buy quota as well as a vessel.

      It’s about what size the industry would be if it hadn’t been given away and what will happen to it if we stay in the EU – the discard ban alone is forecast to cut whitefish income by 40-60 percent in Shetland – a lot of tax and jobs.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

      John Tulloch June 20, 2016 9:59 pm Reply
  • Thanks John,

    Members of the fishing community have to take some responsibility for the reduction in the Scottish fleet. Many seem to have sold their soul for the Big Buck. We are not talking about just a few folk. There are hundreds if not thousands of these
    fancy houses. Anyone not familiar with the Banff and Buchan coast would be staggered seeing them.

    The children of these fishermen are still benefiting. These families have the funds to invest in new ships but they chose to spend it on other things.

    R U suggesting that a Brexit should penalise these families who have exploited the common fishing policy or R U happy for them to get off scot free?

    There’s a moral aspect to this and I am uncomfortable that while the CFP has been wrong in many respects there seems to be on public conflict between those fighting for the Scottish fishing industry and those laughing all the way to the bank.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    Graeme McCormick June 20, 2016 10:45 pm Reply
  • indeed, Graeme. One reason they don’t invest in more/bigger boats is because they must have quota for those new boats and they only get that if it becomes available from e.g. a boat being sold and scrapped.

    In many cases, these folk hogging the quota have a vested interest – they are quite likely to dominate industry associations – in no change and they support staying in the EU.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

    Andrew Argyle June 20, 2016 11:06 pm Reply
  • Thanks John. A very interesting article, with well-supported points.
    I agree that the CFP has been very bad for our fishermen. The situation has not been helped by the selling of UK quotas, by UK citizens, to interests outwith the UK, but that’s not the basic problem, just an exacerbating factor. So Shetland would indeed be better with some Faroe-style arrangement. The other UK fishermen, and particularly the Cornish, also. However a Brexit will involve the whole UK and all its industries and population, and there I still think that the balance of advantage stays with Remain, especially when the likely costs of a Leave are factored in.
    So are we looking at a UK which has separated from the EU, a Scotland which has separated from RUK, and a Shetland which has separated from Scotland ? There are no easy answers to that, except that black or white, totally in or totally out, are unlikely to produce good results. And I wouldn’t ask Farage and Co for advice.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

    Arthur Blue June 21, 2016 10:20 am Reply
    • I would just like to add that every governmental ( and military ) decision inevitably has its costs, and that those costs often fall disproportionately on particular groups, usually a lot further down the social rankings from the decision-makers. The policy may well have a clear balance of advantage, but responsible leaders try to mitigate the effects on the inevitable casualties. In this case I do believe that our fishing industry was sold down the line, with little sign of contrition from those who did the selling. And in the passing the same applies to immigration, which has a clear balance of benefit to the general economy as well as those who want their peas picked by semi-slave labour, but the strains and costs of which fall on those least able to bear them.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

      Arthur Blue June 21, 2016 3:44 pm Reply
      • Some very good points there, Arthur. At UK level there is an immigration difficulty with EFTA, whose members enjoy the EU’s ‘four freedoms’, however that would not be an obstacle for an independent Scotland.

        All the benefits of EU membership plus the ability to do your own trade deals with others and retain sovereignty over your fishing grounds and other areas sounds very tempting.

        If I was Nicola, I think I’d take another look at that particular area of SNP policy.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

        John Tulloch June 21, 2016 6:14 pm Reply
        • I think that the CAP is also dysfunctional. Paul Dacre ( Editor, Daily Mail ) inveighs against the EU’s misuse of public money. Mr Dacre, who has “property interests” is said to be himself in receipt of £460,000 p.a. in “agricultural ” subsidies from the CAP. I strongly suspect that if the UK leaves the EU some equally generous arrangement will be made for the likes of him.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

          Arthur Blue June 22, 2016 10:00 am Reply
          • Correction. Paul Dacre has received £46,000 from the EU since 2011, not per annum. On the other hand the family of Ian Duncan Smith, another keen Brexiteer, do receive £150,000 per year in EU subsidies. Apologies to readers for the error.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

            Arthur Blue June 22, 2016 6:04 pm
        • Yes,John. All policies – and not just those of the EU – should be subject to regular review, and reform as necessary.
          Hopefully this should not be so drastic as having to tear them up by the roots to start again, which tends to have very high disturbance costs even if eventually successful.
          On the matter of the of Iceland and the Faeroe Islands their control of adjacent fisheries seems to have had positive results.
          Although out of the EU they have friends there, and it is doubtful that they would last long if they had to stand alone against a determined assault on the grounds by – say – powerful fishing interests with snow on their seaboots. And local control certainly does not mean freedom from restrictions, for in some ways their fishermen are controlled more closely than ours are. But you will know a great deal more about that than I do.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

          Arthur Blue June 22, 2016 2:15 pm Reply
  • Tonight’s BBC debate. The conundrum is will Ruthy mount Boris?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 8

    Nae Fear Here June 21, 2016 1:47 pm Reply

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