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.
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 [Please note that I no longer represent Wir Shetland so the views expressed here are my own.]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 . 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.
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.
Mackerel 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  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.
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.