Scotland has 8.4% of the UK population and 60% of the total catch, so fisheries are hugely important to ports such as Fraserburgh on the east coast, Lerwick in the north, Kinlochbervie in the west and, of course, on my own islands on the west coast. Fishing News, a great newspaper to read at the weekend in my constituency, had an article this week stating that the annual turnover of UK fisheries has hit £1 billion for the first time, which is remarkable. Fisheries are about 0.5% of UK GDP.
As Chair of the International Trade Committee, I am often told that sectors bigger than fisheries do not get the same attention, but in coastal communities we know why fisheries get such attention. They are integral to the lives we lead and to the people we know. Indeed, the Secretary of State mentioned the lives lost at sea in his opening remarks, and I personally know people who have lost their life at sea working as fishermen.
I worked as a fisherman a number of years ago, although not for long, over the summer, which is the right time of year to work in fisheries. I have always had sympathy for the guys who fish all year round. Fisheries are vital, and it is vital that we get this right. We know things have been wrong in the past, and there is a lot of expectation management happening at the moment—and it probably needs to happen.
The largest fishery organisation by membership in Scotland, the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association, has flagged a number of things as important and, as the MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, it is right that I repeat them. Those with Facebook friends in the Hebrides will know that at the weekend a large bluefin tuna washed ashore on a beach in Tolsta, on the east coast of Lewis. Bluefin tuna are all around. Indeed, Angus Campbell from Harris was in touch yesterday with a tag of a bluefin tuna that was found around Scarista in the west of Harris, and he regularly comes across shoals of bluefin tuna on his trips to St Kilda.
We expect to see a trebling of the allowable catch of bluefin tuna to 38,000 tonnes, and we are now seeing a lot of tuna in our waters, now seemingly all year round if a bluefin tuna has washed up in Tolsta in November, so our big ask—or our moderate ask—is that we have access to that allowable catch, as Mr Walker said, both for catch and release for sporting use and for catch and sale. If the allowable catch is increasing threefold, surely one of the benefits we might see from this upheaval is that we have such access, because bluefin tuna are becoming increasingly plentiful in our waters.
The Western Isles Fishermen’s Association, through its excellent secretary Duncan MacInnes, has done a power of work over the past few years, and it raises a number of areas of concern. There is a concern about the over-10 metre fleet. The Highlands and Islands development board, which some will remember from years past, gave grants for an awful lot of vessels to be built, and some of those vessels are still catching and still contributing. There is a need to upgrade, to reinstate and to reconsider how exactly we retool and re-equip coastal communities to make sure they are ready to catch.
Western Isles Council runs a loan scheme in conjunction with the banks, and it has a very low failure rate, but we are looking for the Government to introduce a business loan guarantee scheme to assist the fishing industry, with similar terms to those offered in other industries.
The Western Isles Fishermen’s Association also refers to access to quota opportunities, and it notes that in the last 40 years the fleet has reduced from 273 vessels to 220, and the number of fishermen is down from 499 to 377. In addition, whereas pelagic and whitefish landings used to account for 97.5% by volume and 73% by value in 1973, the position now is that shellfish account for 96% by volume and 90% by value.
An Eriskay fisherman once told me, “I can remember a time when I sold off my rights to fish mackerel and herring to 20 boats and to 50 families on the east coast of Scotland.” I have written to the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ask that the Committee looks into who holds the quota, where they got the quota from and whether the quota might be better distributed and, of course, that it considers the idea of community and geographical quotas. Community quotas have worked very well indeed in other areas.
A prickly area that has not been properly touched on is seal management. I cannot resile from mentioning the volume of seals and the amount of fish they are taking. There is a colony of about 30,000 seals around the Monach islands, west of Uist. The annual consumption is 2.5 tonnes per seal, so an estimated 75,000 tonnes of fish are being eaten. A very conservative estimate of the value of that fish is about £1,000 per tonne, so we are talking about some £75 million of fish. I put this suggestion out there for people to ponder, but we could have a seal management plan that might involve something like contraceptive darts to limit the number of seals, because their numbers are out of balance with the marine environment. Perhaps a lack of killer whales is our concern and an issue in that area.
I mentioned the spurdog to the Secretary of State—he looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights and I had to say the word twice. The spurdog is a dogfish with a particular spur on its dorsal fin. It is often caught in bycatches at the moment; it cannot be landed and cannot be used. Fishermen have sent me photographs of 20 or 100 boxes of spurdog that they have caught. In this winter period—probably from about now until March—spurdog will regularly turn up in the nets. At one point when I was fishing, they were not great to spot with sonar—because of the lack of a swim bladder—although that might be different now, but they are certainly ending up in nets by accident. They are a nuisance to clear and fishermen cannot land them, despite their having value in other countries, so let us make sure something happens on this issue of spurdog.
One thing I want to mention is the expectation management that will probably be required. I can see from Government Members that Brexit will never be great for Brexiteers who have envisaged Brexit in a slightly different form, but in Iceland there has been a change in fisheries. Some 80 or 90 years ago, 24% or 25% of the Icelandic population were involved in fisheries, but now the figure is about 4%, and that is due to technology. Iceland wants to see fewer people involved in fisheries. The fishing concern HB Grandi, which is based in Reykjavik, wants to see itself with even fewer fishing boats than at present, such is the way technology is moving. Its fishing boats are very different from those we see; they are about the size of car ferries, and on board there are hot tubs and so on.