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More than four months after the EU referendum, today’s debate is another chapter in the series of debates trying to hide the SNP Government’s failure, with SNP members once again blaming either Westminster or Brexit. Whether we like it or not and whether we supported it or not, the UK is leaving the European Union and we have to—and we will—make a success of it. This debate is nothing more than a smokescreen to hide the SNP’s inadequacies and failings when it comes to the environment and climate change.
I will quote the Scottish Wildlife Trust, which has said:
“The state of Scotland’s natural environment is inextricably linked to Scotland’s future prosperity, the wellbeing of its people and Scotland’s ability to cope with the effects of climate change. The quality of Scotland’s natural environment and being renowned for maintaining high environmental standards are both significant to ‘Brand Scotland’ and hence Scotland’s economy e.g. the tourism sector is worth at least £11.6 billion—nature-based tourism alone is estimated to generate at least £1.4 billion, with around 39,0000 full-time equivalent jobs.”
Therefore, there is no doubt that climate change is very important to Scotland. Moving forward, in or out of the EU, we must take every step to ensure that all our efforts and initiatives will enhance the protection of our vital natural environment. It is disappointing that the cabinet secretary suggests that if we are out of the EU, we will not strive for—or, possibly, achieve—the highest standards of environmental protection. Mr Ruskell suggests that if we do not have the stick of Europe, we are unlikely to carry through some of our current policies and standards.
In my constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries more than £300 million can be attributed to tourism. Our natural environment is of huge importance and covers marine, coastal and hill habitats. Eco-tourism is the fundamental basis for this industry.
Today’s motion states that
“membership of the EU has ensured progress on a wide range of environmental issues in Scotland and continues to underpin vital environmental protection”,
but as our amendment states, the EU has “at times aided progress” in certain areas,
“with a variety of international organisations and nations” that should also be commended for their work.
However, the real problem for the Scottish Government is that it cannot get it right—even with us inside the EU—with agriculture and the common agricultural policy debacle, for which the Scottish Government is very fortunate not to be faced with a heavy fine. The same can be said of its rushed and poorly thought-out salmon conservation regulations. This Government failed to defend to the EU the fact that Scotland has long practised regulatory conservation of fish stocks under the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 2003. Instead of gathering factual evidence on mixed-stock fisheries, the Government used inadequate and scientifically and analytically inappropriate stock modelling to create a quick fix that was acceptable to the EU and to avoid further fines.
Too often, the Government picks and chooses when to use proper scientific research. It has been forced to impose draconian catch-and-release restrictions that are based on a flawed and poorly researched river categorisation. I accept that measures are necessary to conserve salmon stocks for future sustainability, but the process that this Government used to categorise our rivers was clearly flawed and lacked the scientific evidence that it should have sought.
In Dumfries and Galloway, traditional fishing was given a special dispensation on the River Annan, on historical grounds. However, the River Nith was not afforded the same comfort, despite both rivers flowing into the Solway Firth and having similar historical fishing rights. Instead, what we got was a model that was based on the historical number of catches, with no consideration of the number of people who fish our rivers, or the rivers’ water quality. We should not be totally surprised by that; it is another example of SNP centralisation in which it has adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to every river in the country.
The result has been devastating not only for the fishing industry but for tourism businesses that rely on fishermen. In Dumfries, for example, the number of fishing tickets being issued on the River Nith has halved, with fishing rate charges now totalling more than tickets sales can cover. Worryingly, a 150-year-old commercial wild salmon fishery in my constituency, which has been a long-standing heritage, educational and tourist attraction, was closed for three years in April for “conservation purposes” but is in danger of being closed permanently if the Government proceeds on the current course.
The cabinet secretary and the Scottish Government need to get a grip on the situation. Scotland is a world-famous location for wild fishing, which is important for Scotland’s economy as a whole and especially in areas such as my constituency, where fishing helps to underpin many communities. If the high-handed one-size-fits-all approach continues, we will see local economies being hit hard. The wild fishing industry is a very big part of Scotland’s tourism industry. Whether we are in or out of Europe, the Government needs to step up to the mark with regard to the huge challenges that are brought about by climate change.
The fact of the matter is that the Scottish Government can no longer hide behind its failures on Scotland’s wild fisheries industry. The Conservatives believe that locally based river management plans are needed, supported by proper scientific and circumstantial evidence. The Scottish Government could take such action inside or outside the European Union.