Managing Scotland’s Fisheries

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 14th January 2021.

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Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer, 2020 will be remembered for all the wrong reasons and 24 December 2020 will be remembered as the day that the United Kingdom Government sold out Scottish fishing interests in the most egregious way.

The outcome of the negotiations expose to all and sundry that the promises that were made to fishermen in Scotland, and indeed throughout the UK, have been broken. On 29 December, the Scottish Government published its analysis of the impact of the Brexit trade deal’s measures for fishing and seafood. That analysis details stock by stock, fishing area by fishing area, the results in terms of actual fish landed and it shows that there will be major reductions in certain of those, including North Sea white-fish stocks.

Remarkably, the Scottish industry will now have access to fewer fishing opportunities than under the existing common fisheries policy arrangements, even at the end of the five-and-a-half-year adjustment period. The UK Government negotiated away existing quota share for white-fish stocks, which are among the most important to our fishing industry, including onshore interests, with more than 90 per cent of what is caught being landed at harbours and fish markets in Scotland and then processed here for sale.

To compound those shortfalls, full access to our waters has been granted to the European Union, leaving little if any negotiating capital in forthcoming negotiations where we would seek to redress those shortfalls.

The Tories promised Scotland’s fishermen “a sea of opportunity”, but instead they have effectively made our “seas gang dry”. As Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, put it, the UK is now

“a coastal state with one hand tied behind our back”.

Those broken promises leave our fishermen woefully short of their expectations and their sense of betrayal is evident in their responses. Mike Park said that the members of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association were

“deeply aggrieved at the very challenging situation they now face for 2021.”

John Anderson, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Organisation described it as

“capitulation on a monumental scale”.

Of course, it is not the Tories who have to play the appalling hand they have dealt here—that is left to us; we have to pick ourselves up and work out how best to manage the situation. I have already met key industry leaders to discuss how we will work together to mitigate the shortfall in available quota and deliver the best possible management structures in our waters.

We face a bleak future, but the one bright spot is the fact that we have secured direct involvement for Scottish officials in the annual negotiations. My officials are working flat out to identify new and creative ways to plug the many quota shortfalls we now find ourselves with. We will apply our expertise and knowledge and do our best to prevent the UK Government from trading away any of our interests to protect its own. Our priority will be to redress the balance of Scottish waters and stocks being used as negotiating currency without delivering tangible benefits to the Scottish fishing industry.

Let me lay down this warning: we have long experience of the UK Government trading away Scottish interests in order to secure its own in annual negotiations. Any attempt by the UK Government to correct its own failings through the upcoming bilateral negotiations at Scotland’s expense will be resisted utterly and publicised relentlessly.

This week’s total allowable catch setting negotiations on the jointly managed stocks with the EU and Norway began on Tuesday, and I expect that negotiations with Norway and the EU on bilateral arrangements will soon follow. Although not yet concluded, discussions with the Faroes on a bilateral arrangement are already under way.

We will promote and support action that helps to recover stocks by introducing appropriate management measures, reducing discarding and addressing choke species.

We will fight for what is fair and deliver, in partnership with the industry, a progressive yet practical catching policy as part of our strategy on the future management of Scotland’s fisheries. The strategy that I published on 17 December sets a course to deliver our vision for Scotland to be a world-class fishing nation. That vision is centred on the key themes of transparency, accountability, resilience, responsibility and, of course, sustainability. I am clear that we will work with all stakeholders to deliver the 12-point action plan in that strategy.

Crucially, I and this Government will do all we can to defend our devolved fisheries powers. That includes pressing for Scotland to get its fair share of future funding for fisheries and marine. We believe that our share should be £62 million, but the UK offer is a paltry £14 million, much of which would go on other functions, such as compliance. The same applies to the new £100 million fund; Scotland’s share is £60 million and we need it devolved in full, right now, to determine how best to meet our needs and interests.

However, one overriding, immediate pressure must be addressed. Members are aware of the terrible impact that the new rules for exporting seafood are having, not just on export businesses but on fish markets and the catch industry. Yesterday, I wrote to George Eustice to demand that the UK Government delivers on its promise to pay all the costs of Brexit and provide compensation to help all those businesses. Those jobs and livelihoods might not matter to the Tories, but they matter to Scotland.

I understand that the Prime Minister indicated that compensation would be forthcoming; that needs to happen and it needs to happen now. I extracted that concession after rattling the cages of Whitehall in representing Scotland at a meeting there yesterday. We need more urgency and effort from the UK Government to resolve the system problems that are stopping and delaying exports.

Papers revealed that, on the way into the EU, Edward Heath’s Tory Government considered Scotland’s fishing interests as “expendable”. On the way out, the Tories have made them expendable again. They have delivered a shocking deal for our catching industry that offers no succour in any part. They ignored our and the food and drink sector’s warnings about the impact of customs barriers and calls for a six-month grace period. Thirteen days into Brexit, they are yet to lift a finger to help our businesses, and they are failing to match even the funding envelope that we got under European maritime and fisheries funding.

Brexit is a boorach and its pathways are littered with broken Tory promises, but this Government will do better; we do not overpromise and underdeliver. All we can do is offer our coastal communities and everybody who works in Scotland’s fishing industry—offshore, inshore and onshore—the commitment that we will not stop trying and that, using our skills and expertise, we will try to get the best possible outcome from the annual negotiations. We will try our hardest to get the UK Government to do right by those communities and people and fix some of the mess that it has created, and we will work to ensure that it compensates them for their Brexit losses. By working with them to deliver our strategy and action plan, we will also try to build a brighter future than the one that the UK Government has delivered for our fisheries.

When I became Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, I promised to champion and fight for the interests of Scottish fishing, and this Government and I will continue to do that.