Fisheries Negotiations

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 8 November 2023.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The next item of business is a statement by Mairi Gougeon on Scotland’s approach to the 2023 coastal state fisheries negotiations and securing principled, sustainable outcomes.

The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions. Cabinet secretary, you have around 10 minutes.

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I welcome the opportunity to set out Scotland’s approach to the negotiations with coastal state partners on fishing opportunities for 2024. I hope that it is an approach that Parliament can support.

This is my third year of leading Scotland through the annual negotiations and, every year, the objective is the same: to protect Scotland’s interests. These negotiations are crucial for Scotland, providing economic opportunities for our coastal communities and safeguarding the health of fish stocks and ecosystems for generations to come.

Going into 2024, I want to build on the successes of last year’s negotiations, which resulted in outcomes worth around £500 million to Scotland. The negotiations also have a role to play in the evolution of Scotland’s world-class fishing sector and help to deliver a range of the objectives that are embedded in our “Future fisheries: management strategy—2020 to 2030”, “Scotland’s National Marine Plan: A Single Framework for Managing Our Seas” and the “Blue Economy Vision for Scotland”.

As was the case in previous years, we will be fully involved in multilateral, bilateral and trilateral negotiations on shared stocks and exchanges of opportunities. We will also take part in meetings of the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, where management measures in international waters will be discussed.

The Scottish Government’s overarching approaches to this year’s negotiations remain consistent with our well-established principles and are underpinned by our national and international commitments. We remain committed to ensuring that Scotland continues to be a reasonable and co-operative partner within the UK and on the international stage. All but one of Scotland’s quota stocks are shared with other coastal states, meaning that the most sustainable management measures are best agreed jointly and in collaboration with our negotiating partners.

As usual, the scientific advice for 2024 presents a mixed picture, but I am pleased to see positive indications for the health of some of our key North Sea and west of Scotland stocks. That is a testament to the efforts of Scottish fishers, who have engaged and worked so closely with us to protect and recover those stocks. We will continue to advocate for responsible fisheries management approaches, informed by the best available scientific evidence. That means working within environmental limits and ensuring that fish stocks are managed sustainably to help to provide a resource for future generations and safeguard the diversity of the marine ecosystem.

As a guiding principle, we will follow the scientific advice where appropriate, working towards fishing at maximum sustainable yield, or MSY. However, we should not be constrained to follow the advice when it is not the most appropriate course of action. Socioeconomic factors, potential choke risks and total allowable catch fluctuations must also be considered, in line with national and international commitments, including the joint fisheries statement.

For data-limited stocks that are not assessed under the MSY approach, we view the precautionary approach as a viable path to sustainability. As a Government and as a fishing nation, we are committed to recovering stocks that are in decline by introducing appropriate management measures: reducing discarding, addressing choke situations and balancing the socioeconomic challenges of negative scientific advice for our key demersal stocks in particular.

We will continue to seek to mitigate large TAC fluctuations at a sensible level, to reduce and manage the potential adverse effects for offshore and onshore fishing businesses and to protect the long-term sustainability of stocks. When deviating from advice, my mandate to Scotland’s negotiation team makes it clear that we must adopt an incremental approach to achieve sustainable catch levels, with a focus on at least maintaining or increasing spawning stock biomass whenever possible. Sometimes, that approach might span several years.

At the same time, this Government remains wholly committed to identifying areas where additional benefits to Scotland’s fishing sectors—catching and onshore—can be secured while being mindful of the impact on our negotiating partners. Our goal is to be seen as a strong yet fair partner in negotiations.

Talks for 2024 are well under way and, as I speak, Scotland’s negotiators are in London for bilateral and trilateral consultations with the European Union and Norway. Further negotiation rounds are scheduled over the coming weeks to discuss a wide range of stocks. Consultations have already been held to set catch limits for the coastal state pelagic stocks, in parallel to discussions on longer-term management elements, including sharing.

Next week, coastal states will come together again for the annual meeting of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission. In December, we will begin bilateral discussions with the Faroe Islands on possible exchanges of opportunities for 2024. I thank fishing and environmental stakeholders for their close and constructive engagement with the negotiations teams in the lead up to the discussions. Their input will continue to be invaluable as the negotiations progress.

We have three main priorities for this year’s TAC negotiations. The top priority within the trilateral and UK-EU bilateral is the newly defined northern shelf cod stock. The latest scientific information gives us a strong basis for transforming the way in which we manage that stock. It shows an extremely positive picture for the health of the north-western stock, better reflecting what fishers have been seeing on the ground. It is also a step change away from the previous zero TAC advice for the west of Scotland. Our aim is to secure catch limits that reflect that positive outlook, including an appropriate and evidence-based allocation to the west of Scotland. I do not underestimate the complexity of those changes, but coastal states now have the information to make better management choices for fishers, and it is time to get that right.

Secondly, monkfish remains a priority for Scottish interests for 2024. It is a stock of key socioeconomic importance to many Scottish vessels, and I have instructed my negotiators to work to mitigate any further cuts in quotas next year. I also look forward to the completion of the benchmark on that stock early next year, which will help to inform discussions about the stock’s future management.

Finally, I have instructed officials to seek further discussion with our negotiating partners on the approach to stocks where decreases are routinely proposed simply because of the methodologies that are being used by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea rather than because of actual changes in stock dynamics. Scientific advice is critical to sustainable fisheries management and decision making, but we need to have confidence that we are working with and making decisions based on the best available evidence.

As well as setting TACs, we will seek to agree exchanges of opportunities with two of our closest fishing neighbours: Norway and the Faroe Islands. I am pleased that we were able to agree on exchanges of opportunities for 2023 with both parties. Those bilaterals provide much-welcomed additional opportunities and flexibility for Scotland’s fishing industry. In particular, the Faroese deal is enabling our larger white-fish vessels to divert effort into Faroese waters, in turn putting less pressure on stocks in Scottish waters. For 2024, I have instructed my negotiators to continue to seek balanced and equitable bilateral arrangements, building on our long-established relationships and our shared goals to see fish stocks managed sustainably.

As usual, advised quota changes will need to be considered carefully when exploring exchanges of opportunities. My priority here is to secure balanced deals that enhance the package of opportunities available to Scottish fishers next year. I appreciate the importance of both bilaterals in achieving that.

We are, of course, also fully involved in the multilateral negotiations as part of the UK coastal state. I am pleased that coastal state consultations on shared, highly migratory pelagic stocks concluded with agreement to set 2024 catch limits in line with the scientific advice. Those stocks are significant for Scotland economically. The need to agree sharing arrangements is becoming urgent.

Parties have set individual quotas in recent years that, when totalled, are above agreed limits. That is not a situation that can continue. Although progress has been positive and dialogue is constructive with most of our fishing partners, there is still further to go. Accordingly, in these multilateral negotiations, a top priority for Scotland is for the parties to agree comprehensive, evidence-based sharing arrangements as soon as possible. That will provide the long-term stability and management that we all wish to see for those stocks.

The annual fisheries negotiations matter hugely for Scotland. Responsible fisheries management is a cornerstone of a healthy, productive marine ecosystem and, for so many of our fish stocks, agreeing shared management approaches with our fishing neighbours is an integral part of the process. We are fortunate, in Scotland, to be represented by negotiators with a wealth of experience, and I am confident that they will, again, deliver the best deal possible.

While the rest of us are beginning the countdown to the festive season, Scotland’s negotiating teams are preparing to spend days and weeks away from home and are moving between locations in London and Europe to ensure that Scotland’s interests are represented, our voice is heard and our fishing industry benefits. They are ably supported by a team of data analysts and technical experts at home, whose expertise enables us to keep up with the pace and movement of discussions.

Throughout the 2024 negotiations, the Government will continue to seek the best outcome for Scotland’s environment, fishing interests and coastal communities. That means balancing environmental, economic and social considerations, and considering short and long-term impacts on fish stocks and the fishing industry. That matters for the onshore supply chain, which depends on fishing effort as much as it does for the offshore businesses. We will take principled, robust positions based on the best available scientific information and take into account socioeconomic factors. We will also work closely and collaboratively with stakeholders and coastal state partners to ensure the sustainable use of those important stocks in the long term.

Every day, Scotland’s fishing fleets put themselves in the front line of climate change. They go out to sea in increasingly unpredictable weather not only to secure a living but to ensure that we all benefit from healthy produce that is important to our future food security. It makes me all the more determined to safeguard their future in these and, indeed, future negotiations. Scotland’s fishing industry deserves nothing less.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow up to 20 minutes, after which we will need to move to the next item of business. Members who wish to ask a question but have not yet pressed their request-to-speak button should do so now.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of the statement. I wish her teams well with the negotiations.

The fantastic work of our fishermen is placing Scotland’s seas on a sustainable footing, and I commend them for that. Under the UK Fisheries Act 2020, we must consider the biological, social and economic pillars of sustainability equally. However, in light of the lessons learned from the highly protected marine areas calamity—which was presided over by the Scottish National Party and Green Government—putting jobs and livelihoods at risk, will the Scottish Government ensure that our hard-working fishermen are put at the heart of that sustainable approach to ensure that we keep the lights on across Scotland’s coastal communities?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

Rachael Hamilton’s comments started off well and I thought that we were going to be on an agreeable footing. However, I welcome her initial comments.

I hope that I was able to emphasise in my statement how important the negotiations are for our fishing industry and the wider economy of Scotland. We recognise how vital fishing is for our food security, among many other reasons.

Rachael Hamilton rightly outlines the different objectives in the Fisheries Act 2020 that we have to try to balance. I outlined in my statement the balance between the environmental objectives, sustainability and economic factors. We try to get that balance right and we will continue to do that.

As I hope that I made clear in my statement, the key for the negotiating teams when they are out looking for opportunities is to do the best for the Scottish fishing industry and support it as much as possible. They engage closely throughout the negotiations, so I hope that Rachael Hamilton and other members across the chamber can support the approach that I have set out.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

Having finally recognised that HPMAs were not fit for purpose, does the cabinet secretary recognise that poor management of a well-meaning policy has significantly damaged trust between the fishing industry and the Government? What will the Government do to rebuild that trust in a way that protects the thousands of jobs in Scotland that depend on the industry?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Net Zero and Just Transition published the results of the consultation on HPMAs yesterday. An important part of setting out that approach was to outline the next steps and how we will engage. People made it abundantly clear that they felt they had not been appropriately engaged with or consulted. We made it clear throughout the process that we did not want to impose anything on communities. That is why having community involvement and the involvement of all the industry that is impacted by any future proposals will be critical.

There is no getting round the fact that we need to do more for the climate and biodiversity. We failed on 11 of the 15 good environmental status objectives, so there is more work to be done. However, it is critical that we work with our industry, communities and all the other interested stakeholders to find a way through. Measures have already been implemented in parts of Scotland where that approach has worked and continues to work well. We want to build on that success.

Photo of Karen Adam Karen Adam Scottish National Party

The annual negotiations are critical to the fortunes of Scotland’s fishing industry, but it is also important that we manage to reach longer-term sharing arrangements with some of the parties. Of course, it has proven challenging to do that with some of the coastal states in the recent past. Has any progress been made in that area?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

Karen Adam raises a really important point. As I outlined in my statement, it is becoming urgent that we reach agreement on longer-term sharing arrangements, given their importance. I reiterate that that remains a top priority for Scotland.

Over recent months, parties have worked closely together to find sharing solutions for mackerel, blue whiting and Atlanto-Scandian herring. Good progress has been made on that, but there is more work to be done. I assure Karen Adam and other members that we will continue to put our full energy behind the on-going negotiations to ensure that we see the long-term sustainability of those important stocks.

Discussions on all three pelagic stocks will continue in the coming months, and I hope that all parties will engage in the negotiations with an open mind. Everyone must show a bit of flexibility as well as working closely with one another in an effort to find a solution and a way forward. Of course, Scotland will, as always, push for agreements that are fair, that are based on robust evidence and that reflect the distribution of the stocks.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

Yesterday’s U-turn by the Scottish Government on highly protected marine areas was welcome. Credit must go to those coastal communities, fishing organisations and politicians from across the parties who opposed those hated proposals.

However, given this SNP-Green Government’s record and its slavish devotion to its Bute house agreement, it is perhaps not surprising that not everyone is convinced that yesterday’s decision represents the final death knell of HPMAs. I therefore ask the cabinet secretary to confirm, once and for all, that this really is the end of the Government’s plans for HPMAs and that something that looks suspiciously like a rebranded version of them will not appear under a different guise at some point in the future.

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

As has already been made abundantly clear by the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Net Zero and Just Transition, we are not looking to seek to implement HPMAs across 10 per cent of Scotland’s seas by 2026. That commitment is no longer going forward.

As I stated in my response to Rhoda Grant, we have committed to work with stakeholders and communities to ensure that, when we implement measures, we work with people to do that. I have talked about some of the examples in Scotland where such management is working. We want to build on that success.

Photo of Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

Considering the nature of the questions today, I suggest that listening and changing tack is a sign of strength. Other parties might want to recall that.

Fishing is obviously a vital economic and social foundation stone for coastal communities. It is great to hear that we have a top-class team and to hear about the progress that is being made in establishing the newly defined northern shelf cod stock. How does the cabinet secretary see the outcome of the negotiations strengthening communities and reversing depopulation in Scotland’s coastal communities?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

It is vital that, in addressing the challenges that Kate Forbes outlined, we secure the opportunities that are afforded by the negotiations.

When I talked about the outcome of our negotiations last year, I mentioned that it brought in £500 million-worth of fishing opportunities. That is no small amount, particularly to the fishing communities that operate in our island and rural and coastal areas. It is critical that we put all our work into making the most of those opportunities and capitalising on them. As I mentioned in my statement and in previous responses, our top priority in all our work in this area is to work for the benefit of our industry in Scotland. We will work closely with the industry throughout the negotiations in an effort to do just that.

Photo of Mercedes Villalba Mercedes Villalba Labour

The value of landings in Scotland last year was £617 million, and the industry employs 4,100 fishers in Scotland. Will the national marine plan 2 include spatial plans for all activities, including fisheries, for all appropriate locations in our inshore waters?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

It is the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Net Zero and Just Transition who is leading on the development of the national marine plan 2, work on which is already under way. A few sessions were held earlier this year on the start of that process.

The spatial element that Mercedes Villalba mentioned is being considered in the national marine plan 2. I am happy to follow that up with colleagues and provide the member with further information.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

What would independence in Europe mean for Scotland’s fishing interests? Last week, the Scottish Government published the latest “Building a New Scotland” paper, which is on migration. How might those proposals benefit Scotland’s offshore and onshore seafood sectors?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

It will not be a surprise to anyone here that Scotland is a welcoming and inclusive nation. We want to make Scotland as attractive a place as possible for people to choose to live, work, study, raise their families and build their lives here, and a key part of that vision is to ensure that we have thriving coastal and island communities. That means enabling the inward migration that they need and ensuring that our fishing, seafood processing and other sectors can access the vital labour that they need.

However, the UK Government has, in stark contrast to our position, implemented an increasingly hostile immigration policy that has exacerbated labour shortages and rural depopulation, and it has consistently shown a lack of understanding of Scotland’s needs. That includes a visa system that has persistently maintained an uneven playing field based on the geographic location and operational area of fishing vessels, which is particularly detrimental to the Scottish inshore fleet in the Highlands and Islands and which imposes charges for people to obtain visas that are far in excess of what would be reasonable.

I make no secret of the fact that I continue to believe that Scottish independence and membership of the EU is the best way to overcome the harms of Brexit, give Scotland a voice and influence at the heart of Europe and help our marine sector to reach its full potential.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Can we listen to the questions and responses from the cabinet secretary without the running commentary from members, please?

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement and agree that the annual fisheries negotiations matter hugely for Scotland. I note the cabinet secretary’s comments on catch limits for coastal state pelagic stock and discussions on longer-term management elements. Does the Scottish Government still agree that unilateral mackerel quota increases, such as the 55 per cent increase by Norway and the Faroe Islands in 2021, are unacceptable starting points for negotiations this year?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

I hope that I have made it clear that reaching those sharing agreements will be hugely important. We are putting all our strength into negotiating on that front. It comes back to the point that all parties need to approach negotiations with an open mind and a willingness to be flexible.

I hope that that will be the approach of other parties to the negotiations, because we cannot be in a situation where unilateral decisions are made that result in our stocks being fished at unsustainable levels. I do not think that any of us want to be in that position, so we will put the full force of our teams behind ensuring that we have as good a sharing agreement as possible and that we are fishing to sustainable levels.

Photo of Ariane Burgess Ariane Burgess Green

The cabinet secretary said:

“We will continue to advocate for responsible fisheries management approaches”, which means safeguarding

“the diversity of the marine ecosystem”.

How can we safeguard the diversity of 6,500 species in Scottish seas, many of which are caught as bycatch, when fisheries management plans will cover only 43 individual species? Can the Scottish Government commit to developing, in conjunction with stakeholders, multispecies ecosystems-based fisheries management plans to help fulfil our obligations under the UK Fisheries Act 2020 and make fishing truly sustainable for our ecosystems and our fishing communities?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

Fisheries management plans are just one of the tools that we will use to manage our fisheries and marine ecosystems. As we set out in our fisheries management strategy, a comprehensive programme of work is already under way to help us to deliver the aspiration of being a world-leading, responsible and sustainable fisheries manager. That includes our policy commitments to introduce fisheries management measures in our MPA network and our future catching policy, which will reduce unwanted bycatch and look at other marine species. We will also roll out remote electronic monitoring and tracking to key parts of our fishing fleet, which will improve compliance with legislation and increase accountability.

Of the 6,500 marine plants and animals that Ariane Burgess cited, 150 are caught by fishing gear on a regular or semi-regular basis. It is also important to remember that we cannot deliver everything at once. Change takes time, but I re-emphasise our commitment to delivering those improvements.

Photo of Audrey Nicoll Audrey Nicoll Scottish National Party

In 2017, Michael Gove—the then UK Government minister for fisheries—promised that leaving the EU was a “sea of opportunity” for the fishing industry in my Aberdeen South and North Kincardine constituency and across Scotland’s coastal communities. He indicated that we would be able to “dramatically increase” the amount of fish that we catch. Can the cabinet secretary advise whether the trade and co-operation agreement that was negotiated by the Tories has delivered on that?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

The promise of a sea of opportunity and of a dramatic increase in the amount of fish that we could catch was one of many that were made by UK Government ministers both during and after the Brexit referendum, and it was one of the many promises that were clearly—and quite shamefully—broken.

Under the trade and co-operation agreement, for some species, Scotland has effectively lost quota share and we have access to fewer fishing opportunities than we had under the common fisheries policy. Quota gains have been made for a small number of species, but some of the other gains are also what are known as “paper fish” on which the quota has never been fully utilised and where additional quota is not needed nor, in fact, wanted.

The trade and co-operation agreement also makes the explicit link between access to waters and access to markets, which means that there is scope for retaliatory trade measures if the UK Government seeks to restrict or deny EU vessels access to UK waters from 2026. The tariffs that could be imposed as a result would not only be devastating to sectors such as Scottish aquaculture but could also be applied to other economic sectors in some cases.

Throughout Brexit negotiations, we consistently said that no deal could be reached that would be as favourable as EU membership, and the UK Government has now proven that conclusively.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

In the statement, the cabinet secretary quite rightly praised the efforts of Scottish fishers who have engaged and worked closely with her to protect and recover stocks. I would like to be positive, but despite the welcome U-turn, the fisherman—and singer of Skipinnish’s anti-HPMA protest song—Donald MacNeil said,

“I would not trust anything they say”, “they” being the Scottish Government.

Given previous debacles, such as the Clyde cod box and the failure to deliver key policies, how will the cabinet secretary go about restoring trust between fishers, fishing communities and her Scottish Government?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

It is never good to hear comments like that, and, as I have made clear in previous responses—the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Just Transition has also made this clear in relation to HPMA proposals—those proposals are not going forward. We want to ensure that we are working with people in relation to marine protected areas and on where we need to do more for the climate and biodiversity.

We can do that only with the industry and with communities, and that is why we listened through the consultation process. The cabinet secretary for net zero made an announcement before the summer, and we have just published the results of the consultation, because, understandably, that took a long time to go through, but rebuilding trust is critical. We made it clear throughout the process that we would not impose anything on communities that they did not want. Rebuilding that trust and working with communities is a key priority.

Photo of Jackie Dunbar Jackie Dunbar Scottish National Party

Just to pick up on what Audrey Nicoll said, Michael Gove also told the fishing industry in 2017 that

“once we take back control of our territorial waters, we can decide who comes here, we can decide on what terms.”

We all know that the Tories view anyone who comes here as unwelcome and that they ignore the benefits of international vessel landings, especially in small harbours. Has taking back control created more fishing opportunities for Scottish fishing fleets, or is that another example of Brexiteer Tories promising what they would never be able to deliver?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

No, it did not provide more opportunity. As I outlined, under the trade and co-operation agreement, access to UK waters for EU vessels is guaranteed until at least 30 June 2026. There is ability within that to unilaterally prevent or restrict access thereafter, and it is subject to retaliatory trade measures. Those measures would not affect only the fishing industry, but could also lead to tariffs being applied to aquaculture exports as well as other sectors of the economy. That has wide-reaching ramifications, and because of the Tories’ broken promises on replacing EU funding in full, Scotland now has less funding to invest in our ports and harbours as well as in other forms of support for growth and innovation in our seafood sector.

The contrast between the UK Government and Scottish Government approaches could not be starker. We will always champion the interests of the Scottish seafood sector in the round, including recognising the important role that foreign vessel landings play in ensuring the prosperity of ports such as those of Lochinver and Scrabster.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We are in danger of moving away from the substance of the statement.

I call Colin Smyth. Please be brief.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

Given the clear legal duty that the UK Fisheries Act 2020 places on the Scottish Government, will the cabinet secretary tell us how she will use the negotiations and the outcomes to incentivise low-impact fisheries through quota allocation?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

We make sure that we are in alignment with and are adhering to our legal obligations. We must meet the different objectives that are set out in the Fisheries Act 2020.

I do not know whether the member is referring to additional quota that we have received through that. We have tried to incentivise lower-impact fishing methods such as hand-line mackerel.

I emphasise to all members that we are consulting on the allocation of Scotland’s additional quota. The consultation, which will be open until 11 January 2024, sets out a number of options. I encourage the member, and others, to take part in it and to make their views known.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes this item of business. There will be a brief pause to allow for a changeover of those on the front benches.