Ghost Fishing

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My Socialist father used to say the EEC was nothing more than a Tory club. In 1973 I was coveting suede mini- skirts, denim Wrangler jackets and trying to work up the courage to ask him to let me go the ‘Harray’ dance. Harray is the only landlocked parish in Orkney and natives of Harray got the nickname’ Harray Crabs’ as they had no shoreline. The Harray dance was symbolic of everything that was terrifying to a parent emerging blinking into the 1960s and then hurtled into pre-punk 70s. The iniquity of the hall’s reputation encompassed legendary copulations at the ‘back of the hall’, imbibing of vodka behind broken toilet doors with secondary spewing in the same location, and a floor running in spilt beer which was de rigeur. Unregulated, even socially condoned underage binging in the macho rural society that was Orkney then, created the perfect storm of authoritarian parenting for someone like my dad – a refugee from the Wee Free Kirk.

In our house pre –TV – the news whined on and off station from a Bakelite radio, and news times were religiously observed. We later got telly – my uncle Kenny who ran the Decca station was a whizz with electronics and always had the latest in TV and electrical stuff like an 8 track reel to reel tape recorder on which he taped us all and played Pete Seeger. He was well-known among the fishing community in Orkney and then later in Peterhead when he moved to Longside. A radio operator in the war he survived Monte Cassino. Seeing Thunderbirds in their house was again, tasting the forbidden fruit of ITV.

I only realise now, how significant that time was politically for fishing and our remote and coastal areas. It went almost without question that the UK Atomic Energy Authority would site an experimental reactor at Dounereay as far away from Westminster as you could get. There was no devolved power. Caithness and Orkney really were at the end of the line and the populations small, insignificant and ultimately expendable if the thing blew up. Orkney was much more of an island than it is today when we only had one daily crossing of the Pentland Firth by the St Ola. In 1973 ro-ro changed our island ethos out of all recognition. Oil was mooted and speculative companies arrived in town to present their plans to remove entire hills, build refineries, make millionaires, (Local Hero indeed) while proffering the inevitable beads and goodies to the wary local population. (We got a Steinway Grand which apparently is no longer cost effective, as it’s too dear to repair, and therefore no longer of the calibre required during the annual import of RP culture which is the Saint Magnus Festival) It is a cyclical state of our remote communities, to those of us that were born and brought up here, that a procession of shiny suited developers ‘discover’ our undeveloped potential, come in with big talk and promises and deftly use the isles and our communities as stepping stones in furthering their personal careers or company aspirations.

In the 1970s, the UK still had all of its manufacturing base, its heavy industry and as yet had not grabbed and squandered the spoils of the oil industry. Europe had all these things too. What Europe did not have was the riches of the Scottish fishing grounds. I believe that fishermen were seen as the peasant class of the UK. Ted Heath negotiated the UK entry to the EEC and those fishing riches were part of the key bargaining chips for securing entry. It was class and national politics at its’ worst. Scotland, where fishing was of much larger importance to the working population than England, was viewed as no more than a backward and stroppy Jock-filled shire and the industry itself and working fishermen were perceived as an expendable economic entity that could be sacrificed in order to gain entry to the coveted club. If the wheat fields of central England had been handed over to Europe’s farmers to come and reap willy-nilly there would have been outrage. Our Scottish fishing grounds were our prime harvest crop and they were squandered and handed over almost whole-sale to be carved up by Europe. Thinking of it now it was unbelievable folly that this should happen. But then in those times there was precious little hope of any control for the Scottish population over their economic future, nor of the fishing industry stemming the desperate juggernaut towards the Tory club. ‘As you sow shall you reap’, and what we see now is the pathetically sad and infuriating state of our fisheries and our communities.

The Scottish fishing grounds were stolen and handed away without the democratic say-so of the Scottish people let alone fishermen. The EU in its Common Fisheries Policy reform proposal, barely disguise their appetite for screwing down our fishing communities as they are set to reinvigorate the Tory club and release even more lawless market-driven forces on what is left of Scotland’s hammered industry. In polished vagueness, the CFP document allows everything and nothing to be possible. Most alarming is the assumption that market forces will assist sustainable fishing – the economic analysis of a Santa list is produced to justify this and the fervour of a blatantly neo-con drive toward a free market in quota via permanent international transfers of fishing quota. They have changed the terminology slightly to keep everything subtly disguised, so what was once fishing quota and became rights- based-management is now ‘tradable fishing concessions’. If international permanent transfers in fishing quota – (the right to fish the un-owned fish in the sea) are introduced then the status of tradable quota loses all links to national boundaries and individual fishermen and becomes exactly the same as any type of stock market commodity shares, traded on the international market with no controls at all. Quotas currently restricted to the demersal and pelagic fleet (fishing cod, haddock herring and mackerel) will be extended to encompass all species including those caught by inshore fishermen in our small remote and fragile communities of crab, lobster and scallops.

Fish swimming blithely round today are oblivious to the fact that under the CFP they are destined to be owned at birth. The fisherman will have to go cap in hand to buy the right to fish at whatever price the quota owner, who could be a football club, a pop star or a multinational supermarket chain, wishes to charge. The ‘market’ is notoriously bad at protecting the interests of the non-monied. Survival of the fittest is all very well if you happen to be the fittest, but even the fittest are often unaware that there’s a bigger cat in the jungle till it’s too late. Note well the plight of the UK’s dairy farmers held to ransom by low supermarket prices. Potential quota buyers will right now be rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation of the coming bonanza and thinking up new ways to get round the feeble legislation mere governments might attempt to introduce – ghost fishing companies, nominal links to bona fide fishermen and the rest.

We are at the end game of what started back in the 1970s, the theft of Scotland’s fish. In those pre- ro-ro days us islanders, who didn’t buy the life-style on the back of a housing boom in the South East, all felt a bit dislocated from the Mainland and the big decisions that happened there out-with our control. Back then in our island innocence, we never knew we were 20 years behind the fashion down south. When obligatory educational migration pulled us south we arrived in the city feeling I guess like Eastern European refugees possibly feel now, eyes wide at the glitzy supermarkets and high street shops… In the Harray Hall where ‘disco’ was something only read about in the ‘Jackie’ our local bands played out cover versions of The Doors, Deep Purple and Led Zepplin while elsewhere angry punk was simmering waiting to burst on a Royalist UK. We never expected to wake up years later and see our industries and our communities fighting for the basics of their survival, the public right enshrined in statute, to fish.

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  1. Ian Hamilton says:

    Fiona MacInnes must be congratulated. Orcadians may have lost their fish but they haven’t lost their ability to write with force and style. I wish I could write like this.

    Ian Hamilton

  2. ianbeag says:

    Fiona – Congratulations on a great piece of fine writing and for highlighting another decision that has cost our Nation dear. “Ted Heath negotiated the UK entry to the EEC and those fishing riches were part of the key bargaining chips for securing entry. It was class and national politics at its’ worst”
    I can add another piece to this thread of history in respect of the loss of our fishing industry. In the lead-up to the October 1974 election a main pillar of Harold Wilson’s campaign was the renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership of the EEC. In 1978 I was one of four SNP candidates visiting the European Parliament in Brussels and in a meeting with the Agriculture and Fisheries Commissioner I asked why the interests of Scottish fishermen had been sold out during the renegotiation process. The blunt answer from the Commissioner – “The UK government did not have fishing as an item on the agenda for discussion”
    The Labour government of the day took the view that in UK terms fishing was too low down the list of priorities to merit discussion, conveniently ignoring it’s significance to the economy of Scotland. Hardly surprising, therefore, that the industry has been in decline ever since with all the shots being fired in favour of other EU countries.
    Twas always thus!

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