Ever since I overcame my mother’s Blitz-begotten mistrust of the Germans, I have been a Europhile. But sometimes, they really don’t make it easy. Their latest unpalatable tranche of Eurotrash was served up this week by Maria Damanaki in her role as EU Fisheries Commissioner. Her thesis is that the EU Common Fisheries Policy is flawed and urgently needs revision. With 50% of catches being regularly returned dead to the sea as discards to comply with EU quotas and stocks at 10% of post-war levels, that’s a no-brainer.
But, in an apparent rush to swap frying pan for fire, her new proposals, while ending the insanity of 100,000 tonnes of discards each year, also propose that quotas can be traded. Eilidh Whiteford, MP for the core of Scotland’s fleet said: “the Commission is advocating an expansion in the international trading of fishing quotas. Selling quota to Europe’s highest bidders will erode Scotland’s historic rights which in turn could spell doom for our fragile fishing.”
Right on, sister. The limited quota sales of the last thirty years have halved the Scottish deep sea fleet from 800 to 400 (out of our total of 2,800 boats, most of the rest being inshore). Spain, on the other hand now operates 17,000 boats, 8,700 from Galicia and 1,300 out of Basque ports. Many are ocean-going 165-ton boats which work Scottish waters with such gusto.
Greenpeace fingered them in a damning piece of research last year entitled “The Destructive Practices of Spain’s Fishing Armada”. That armada has been boosted over the last two decades by buying-up of Scottish fishing quotas while their government subsidised ship building (€1m each for 27 boats between 2000 and 2005 at a time when EU policy was to reduce fleets). Over that same time, Spain received 46% of all EU fishing subsidies—€1.6bn—while Scotland’s fleet got under 2% (€65m), much of it for de-commissioning boats! In the same period (Spanish fishermen were given access to the North Sea only after 2003), cod, haddock and whiting stocks went through the floor, even as Scots chafed under CFP draconian actions “to maintain stocks”.
Several captains have been prosecuted for flouting CFP quotas, with HM Customs and Fisheries Protection nabbing UK miscreants. But no Spanish boat has suffered such ignominy. They eke several loads from one trip by landing in different Scottish ports like Lerwick or Kinlochbervie, loading the catch onto waiting freezer artics that then get the goods to Spain faster than they could be sailed there. Then out to fish again.
On the EU Council, Spain wields 8 points of clout: Scotland clamours for some share of the indifferent UK’s 10 points. Landlocked Austria, Hungary and Luxembourg each have a say. Countries with coast but no fleet (Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Belgium, Bulgaria, Rumania) also have a say. Scotland has none. Little wonder, then, that our fishermen, from Amity II Skipper Jimmy Buchan, through every fisherman’s federation up to Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead are aghast at what Ms Demanaki’s proposes.
Just as Scottish fishing was stitched up post-1979 when national control was extended to 200 miles and the UK traded fishing rights away, so a cosy côterie of Mediterranean and non-fishing countries will happily swap Spain their fishing interest for support for Greek debt or a wine lake good only for shriveling head lice. We’ll be dead fish, swept away by this stream if we don’t swim hard against it.
In the last century, the Scots have been repeatedly foolish over fish. In the twenties, we fished out the huge North Sea herring stocks. In the seventies, we did the same to the West Coast herring shoals. Since then, we have gone from landing a million tons of pelagic (cod, haddock, whiting, etc) to barely 150,000 tons each year, now worth £55m. If we let this happen a third time, especially if we allow another country to reap the benefit while thumbing their noses at the rules by which we hamstrung ourselves, then we’ll need a robust sense of humour to see the irony in such tragedy.