The Whopper That Got Away

Fish in another man’s pond and you will catch crabs.”

—Yiddish proverb

St Andrew’s Day seems an appropriate time to consider the plight of thousands who once were the backbone of one of Scotland’s historic main industries—fishing. It is timely because Bojo’s Band of Brexiteers are within an ace of achieving glorious isolation from our neighbours. To that end, they may be on the verge of selling Scotland down the ocean (given the scale of it, ‘river’ is too small) once more. Traded away in 1973’s EEC negotiations, our fishing history seems about to repeat itself .

Bargaining Chips and Fish

Fishing is one of the last three stumbling blocks to Brexit peace with the EU. Britain is playing hardball up to the last minute, a fudge might be found on the other two points: Level Playing Field and resolution of disputes mechanism. But the emotional element with fishing makes it the hardest to resolve.

Backed by Boris, David Frost has been playing up the totemic nature of sovereignty, of which fishing is a special case. It constitutes 0.01% of British GDP and the EU is desperate to assuage their fishermen grown used to taking 80% of the catches in British waters, as if it were their own back yard. As a bargaining chip Frost will be tempted to throw this in at the last minute as the only strong card I his hand.

Though England once boasted a serious fleet, operating out of Lowestoft, Hull, Grimsby, etc., losing the “Yom Kipper War” with tiny Iceland in the 1970s decimated their deep sea fleet.  Day fishermen from Amble to Penzance would be hurt by capitulation on fish. But they will be seen as expendable, as will the Scots.

—Readers who already know their fishing history may skip the next section—

Why Fishing Matters in Scotland

At the peak of the Herring Boom in 1907, 227,000 tonnes were cured and exported, the main markets being Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia. Trawling was introduced into Scotland from England in the late 19th century and, from the 1920s, seine-netting was introduced from Denmark. After the interruptions of two world wars, whitefish and shellfish became the main catch. Technical developments put fewer fishermen operating more efficient vessels. Though the annual value of catches rose, the number of people working in the industry fell.

In January 1977, the UK extended its Exclusive Economic Zone out to 200 miles or the median line with other countries. The zone around Scotland became the largest fishery in Europe, by including North Rona, St Kilda and all of the Minch As the CFP gave all EEC members equal access, this has always been shared, as the CFP was made into British law and remains reserved to Westminster.

Fishing retains much greater social, economic and cultural importance to Scotland. Despite having just 8.4% of the UK population, its fleet lands two-thirds of the total catch in the UK. A large portion of EU boats fishing in UK waters land their catch at Scottish ports.

The marine economy, of which fishing is the main component,  represents 3% of Scotland’s GDP and employs over 74,000 people, mainly in smaller and more remote communities where alternate employment is generally scarce.

The Scots As By-catch Discards

UK fishing catches have been stable for the last decade, with around 6,000 vessels employing around 5,000 fishermen who land 700,000 tons of fish each year. The value of that catch has risen from £0.6 bn to almost £1 bn in the last decade.

Scotland provides 65% of the above-mentioned vessels, crew and catch noted above, which creates a major export earner for Scotland as 75% of this is exported, mostly to the EU. England accounted for just 28% of these totals. Unlike in England, fishing is a major component of the thriving Scottish food and drink export market, along with whisky, salmon and farm produce.

Of the 445,000 tons landed in Scotland, 50,000 tons are shellfish caught by smaller boats, mostly on the West coast, with the rest pelagic (284,000) and demersal (107,000), caught by larger deep-sea boats.

Most EU countries have modest fleets of 200-600 boats. These are mostly small, inshore vessels, engaged in day fishing or shellfish and so compete mostly with English boats in the Channel and southern North Sea. Not so the Spanish who operate the largest fleet in Europe. While there are many inshore craft fishing their coastal waters, many of them are deep-sea boats that range as far as Newfoundland, Guinea-Bissau and even Madagascar.  Their total of almost 10,000 boats land a million tons annually and are manned by over 33,000 crew. These numbers have grown over the last 40 years as they have taken advantage of the CFP, buying up licences from Scottish skippers keen to profit from decommissioning. At the same time, the Spanish were building new deep-sea boats to make maximum use of these licenses.

Although the French and Dutch are supposedly making over retaining access to UK waters, their fishing interest is small beer. Of the existing EU 80% share of fish in UK waters, it is the Spanish who take most advantage of it with their far-flung, deep-sea fleet. Therefore, it is they who are leaning hardest on EU Commissioner Barnier to negotiate retention of the status quo. Banking on EU horror of “no deal”, Boris & Frost will be tempted to cave in on fisheries, in exchange for agreement on the Level Playing Field and arbitration of future disputes. Both points are of more importance to the UK Government in the sovereignty stakes.

Though such a compromise will affect English fishermen too, it will be more a zero-sum game to them. At worst, there may be standoffs in the Channel. Similarly, Scottish West Coast fishermen will also operate much as before. Few EU boats intrude into their dangerous waters. Their problem world be tariff barriers. However, shellfish are barely 10% of total Scottish catch. The shadow of our once-numerous deep sea fleet may still operate out of Lerwich, Peterhead, Fraserburgh, St Monans and Eyemouth. But if they are betrayed again, they will find Spanish boats overfishing, ignoring quotas and manipulating discards. That would be bad enough. But if our fleet declines further, some of our most tight-knit, hard-working, self-reliant communities will take further knocks so their youth drift elsewhere, like the 1980s drift toward the oil industry. And those who can’t thole that as a life at sea again drift towards drugs..

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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