Scottish Marine Protected Areas Essential
27th January 2016
A trawler cuts through the murderous waves, the crew facing defiantly each chill salt blast, its hold brimming with the cod sorely won from the depths. These men are the backbone of family life and the lifeblood of communities: rugged of countenance, unbowed of spirit, the fisherman has, to drive home the cliché, salt in his veins. Perhaps that the ocean is the Earth’s final untameable wild permits us to dally in such tropes. With the poles conquered in a plethora of ways by explorers grasping at originality, the mountains mapped, and the last uncontacted tribes – perhaps – subsumed or extirpated, humanity has run dry the well of wonders with which it satiates its ever-inquisitive spirit. The sea however remains an enigma, independent and ever-changing, with those daring to risk its caprice perhaps understandably held in the same vintage as Scott or Bingham.
Safely embalmed in this sentimentality, the fishing industry has long escaped any meaningful scrutiny or control, and in doing so has taken a path of such self-destructive avarice and selfishness as would be dismissed insane by Ahab himself. If world fish stocks are in as perilous a state as many reports claim (‘We knew fish catches were too high. But it’s much worse than we thought‘), then the Firth of Clyde is the nadir to which they head. Subject to quite stunning government mismanagement, one of the most fecund fishing grounds in the Atlantic has become a maritime desert in the space of fifty years: gone the thousands of anglers lining its shores in the seventies and eighties, gone the charter boats, and gone, most ironically, the bulk of the trawlers themselves, replaced by scallop dredgers, desperately scraping the seabed like the hands of a starving man through barren soil.
The fishing free for all of the last fifty years has given birth to an exclusive members club in the Clyde Fishermen’s Association which, should it get its way at Holyrood’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change, and Environment Committee meeting this morning, will resume its unfettered devastation of the firth. A well funded hybrid of fishermen and government, they have made their message clear: to us alone what remains the Clyde’s fishing industry. Anglers, creelers, divers, and anyone who simply believes that the health of the ocean is not only of more import than short-term greed, but beyond monetary value, will simply have to accept their place.
That the Clyde’s decline went hand-in-hand with the removal of gear restrictions in the 1960s and of the three mile limit in 1984 is, were the association’s membership to be believed, a mere coincidence. Fish landings – records of which are available on the Scottish Government website – of previously abundant species such as cod, saithe, and whiting, are practically nil not, so they claim, due to overfishing, but because there is more money in scallops and langoustines. Anglers whose log books have for decades documented events are dismissed as ignorant nuisances, their sport’s loss to both local culture and as an economic benefit an irrelevance.
In a reaction reminiscent of climate change deniers or Bible Belt Christians baulking at the theory of evolution, any scientific evidence which suggests that dragging half a ton of spiked metal over maerl beds and the nursery grounds of fish is – just possibly – detrimental, has been dismissed as sorcery, the hocus-pocus necromancy of scientists funded by wealthy foreign meddlers hellbent on destroying a traditional way of life.
And this is the Clyde Fishermen’s Association’s great mirage: by playing up to the Scottish tale of emigration and land loss, the debate over Marine Protected Areas is portrayed as one of job loss for oppressed natives versus the crazed whims of middle class white settlers. This is a bluff of the highest order. While, by tradition, many fishermen may be working class, by earning money which would humble a manager on an oil platform their cries of injustice are not only an insult to those struggling on minimum wage in the impoverished towns which line the Clyde, they are baseless. Neither the MPAs nor the further conservation methods proposed by the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust will lead to an automatic reduction of the fleet, but merely allow the recovery of areas of the seabed via restricting their access. While logic, and successfully managed MPAs in other parts of the world, suggests that this will in turn allow the return of the fin fishing and angling sectors to areas outwith the MPAs as stocks recover over time, it is something the CFA simply will not countenance.
Their proletarian mask has, alas, slipped. As its merry band of plucky protesters assemble outside Parliament this week, none other than Jamie McGrigor – Tory MSP for the Highlands and Islands and Honorary Chairman of the Clyde Fishermen’s Association – will put forward a movement that Scotland’s entire network of MPAs, including South Arran, be annulled. For so long the darling of the SNP, the fishing industry has now found itself the subject of unwanted scrutiny, with Richard Lochhead MSP thankfully less likely to offer unequivocal support to its outrageous demands than his predecessors were whilst in opposition.
In an unlikely last roll of the dice, the Clyde Fishermen’s Association has thrown itself on a political party more desperate than itself. Selfishness in common, if little else, they make interesting bedfellows, but ones unlikely to derail a government which looks ready to dismiss the delusion of a fisherman’s tale and accept that only through conservation can the Clyde, and all of Scotland’s vast marine ecosystem, return to its historic glory.