On Scottish Fishing

Living in Moray, I found it infuriating to see placards everywhere depicting a smiling Haddock draped in the Union Jack proclaiming that a vote to leave the EU would “Save Our Fishing”.

Moray was the closest-run district in the whole of Scotland in the EU referendum, with entire family dynasties with links to fishing casting their vote to leave based purely on the misguided mantra that the EU is responsible for the demise of the fishing industry in Scotland.

As a former fisherman during the 1980s, and at that time part owner of new-built 65-foot trawler, I think it is time for all of our fishing communities to face up to some hard truths about the fishing industry and at whom the finger of blame for its demise should be pointed.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Scottish fleet had become the biggest and most powerful in Europe, to the point where the catching power far outstripped the resource. Boatyards were booming and so were the local economies. The vast majority of these vessels, however, including the one in which I was a partner, were built with the help of a 50 per cent EU grant. Without this, the boat could never have been built. The same applies to the vast majority of boats built in Scotland in that era.

As this new generation of boats, equipped with the cutting-edge of fish-finding equipment, became larger and ever more powerful, the need to catch more fish to fund them increased. New methods of pair trawling utilising much heavier and larger nets were developed, as well as twin-rig trawling with one powerful vessel towing two large nets. This effectively rendered no single area of the seabed, including the spawning grounds, safe from the Scottish fleets’ nets. Many owners had two rotating crews that would change over straight after landing so that the vessel turned right around and was constantly at sea, hammering the fishing grounds seven days a week.

A Catch-22 situation was created where the large boats were so expensive to run and heavily financed that they couldn’t afford to stop fishing for a single day!

By the end of the early 1990s the fish stocks were utterly devastated, with landings down vastly year on year and cod on the brink of extinction and haddock and whiting heading the same way. Extreme action had to be taken, with quota cuts and days at sea being introduced by the EU as the stark scientific data was presented but almost immediately and unsurprisingly dismissed by fishing industry leaders as unproven nonsense.

The EU grants for new vessels had stopped, but young ambitious skippers then turned to the big banks to finance even more powerful super trawlers being built both at Scottish and European yards, which were designed to work in the most extreme conditions at the outer reaches of the continental shelf and Rockall. The traditional inner waters had now been fished out and decimated, not by the EU but by our own Scottish fleet. The EU finally took drastic action when many fish species teetered on the brink of never recovering, and quotas were immediately cut again to the point where the new larger vessels were struggling to stay viable.

To rein in the size of the fleet, a short-term decommissioning incentive scheme based on the vessels’ tonnage and horsepower was introduced, with a maximum compensation of £1 million for the largest vessels. Skippers who had gambled by building multimillion-pound vessels at foreign yards now found themselves at the mercy of the banks to whom they had turned to finance their venture. Cold, hard economics of the banks decided the fate of many young north-east skippers as the unsympathetic banks decided to cut their losses at the fear of further quota cuts and grab the decommissioning payment while it was available, resulting in almost brand new multimillion-pound vessels sailing to the scrapyards of Denmark to be cut up and their owners made bankrupt with their livelihoods in ruins. Many other boat-owners decided to accept the decommissioning grants as well due to a mass migration of crews to the oil industry, adding to the already intolerable stress of trying to stay viable in impossible circumstances.

Today, fish stocks are recovering to healthy levels, but only thanks to EU intervention. Had the Scottish fleet been allowed to continue as it was the end-game would have been the same for the fleet, but there would have been no fish stocks today and no recovery. Many fishing families fished ethically, but if fishermen – especially those from that era who are blaming the EU while waving a Union Jack – need to point the finger at anyone for the tragic demise of the industry and our communities, then I suggest they take a good long look in the mirror.

 

Comments (36)

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  1. dougie strang says:

    Thanks Graeme for your honesty and some hard truths. I daresay there’ll be many who will disagree with what you write — it’s so much easier to blame the foreigners than accept our own complicity in the decimation of the fishing stocks.

  2. Jim Ritchie says:

    A very interesting article. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Crubag says:

    This seems a somewhat partial article. The Common Fisheries Policy dates back to 1957. The overfishing described would have taken place under the CFP.

    The examples of Iceland or Norway show that it is possible for a home administration to manage fisheries successfully – just as Canada shows you can also do it unsuccessfully.

    It comes down to a question of where you think control should reside.

    1. Somerled says:

      I disagree, crubag, and think you are being cavalier with not only the truth but the future environmental health of our coastal waters which run the risk of being decimated.

      It doesn’t come down to the question of where you think control ought to reside. The article suggests that had control been in the hands of local Scottish fisherman we would have no fishing to worry about.
      No.
      It comes down to the question of environmental disaster and mankind fucking up every natural resource this planet has to offer.

      1. Crubag says:

        My point is that whether control over stocks is at national level or supra-national level humans can either do OK or make a mess of it. Therr also needs to be some trans-national cooperation as some stocks are mobile.

        We ceded control to the supra-national level as part of the price of union. The CFP did apparently make a mess of it. And now it is trying to put it right.

        But there are now guarantees either way, and that includes the union option.

        1. Somerled says:

          Well, it doesn’t take much intelligence to see that the reason those fishermen up north are favour of Brexit is for their own selfish reasons and they want to over-fish the seas into oblivion. That’s why they voted Tory and that’s why they supported Brexit. That’s what’s going on.
          We can see that it was the CFP that saved the fishing grounds. They protected fish stocks and surprise-surprise the fishermen don’t like it because they can’t see past their next weigh-in.

    2. Me Bungo Pony says:

      Crubag wrote; “The Common Fisheries Policy dates back to 1957. The overfishing described would have taken place under the CFP”.

      The implication that it is therefore the EU’s fault, not the fishermen’s, does not stand up to scrutiny. The EU CFP changes over time. It had previously taken fishermen’s word that they were the best shepherd’s of the fishing stocks so had not interfered overly much. However, as it became clear that, far from maintaining stocks, the fishermen were actually destroying them, the EU stepped in and altered the CFP. Successfully so. Many fishermen are now angry that it looks like they will not get the sole unfettered access to the grounds after Brexit they were voting for. Well, that sucks for them but, on the bright side, stocks and therefore the industry will probably be better off in the long run.

  4. Somerled says:

    Brilliant article. Thanks.

  5. james says:

    excellent article and overview.. thanks, and thank the heavens the fish are still around..

  6. Andy says:

    A great article, but we should also remember the vast amounts of money that was put into infrastructural projects directly associated with helping the Scottish Fishing industry in the Eighties and Nineties; the harbour developers at the likes of Mallaig, Lochinver and Kinlochberview, and additionally the road improvements to these harbours. This enabled the fish to be landed by theses new boats. All in all it was a horrendous waste of money and has directly lead to the situation we are in today – a very anticircimspect fishing community, ready to blame anyone other than themselves. Not that they are to blame in themselves, but if we are to move forward, they need to accept some culpability.

  7. Alba woman says:

    An excellent rational article. It is refreshing to read a piece that is not stuffed with inaccuracies and blatant propaganda

    1. Willie says:

      This article certainly seems to set it out as to how it really was.

      But isn’t it so much easier to blame Dirty Johnny Foreigner.

      Mind you with the way plastic waste is going we might not be wanting to buy any of the crap that’ll be coming out of our toxin laden seas.

      The sea is after all our toilet for waste plastic.

      1. Jo says:

        Very true Willie.

        I was reading an article earlier about all the brain-storming going on internationally to address the problem of dangerous objects orbiting the earth. It saddened me that the massive issue of the obscene amount of plastic swirling around our oceans and killing marine life is not more of a concern.

  8. Abulhaq says:

    As with so much to do with Scotland we have the looking-glass covered in order not to see the actual world it reflects. We blame everyone and everything for our ‘misery’.
    Uncover the mirror and see the reality. A Scotland cravenly subordinate to the interests and whims of its ‘partner’. The dutiful spouse who knows where the door is but prefers the familiarity of a psychologically abusive union.

  9. Hilary Christie says:

    Spot on, Abulhaq. Excellently worded. I’ve written it down.

    1. Abulhaq says:

      The psychological factors tend to be ignored. Scotland’s relationship with England has been one of the former’s struggle for survival. We have been divided, conquered and brought into line but the vital spark of nationhood still, against the odds, endures.
      Seeing the Union for what is, the accomplishment of England’s plan to control these islands, is a necessary step to that final ‘decluttering’. Unionism plays on myth ridden, 19th century patriotism. Imperial flummery designed to placate the sensibilties of a country whose mercenary élite effectively sold it for annexation by ‘the auld enemie’.
      What England learned in Scotland (and Ireland) it applied in its dealings with India and elsewhere. Suitably divided, peoples may well connive in their own subjection. Smoke, mirrors plus a dash of self-delusion does the trick.

  10. Tombee says:

    Can I, as someone who’s only experience in fishing, is that I love to eat fish, ask. If after leaving the EU, and the fishermen if Scotland are then able to fish a nevervending bounty of fish stocks. Who, in the absence of EU migrant workers will handle the produce, ready it for market, Etc ?. Who, and where, will the fish then be sold, once the EU markets are closed to them. Or excessive tariffs damage the industry beyond recovery ?.
    Thank you by the way for an excellent article. Explains a lot.

  11. Mark Cullen says:

    I think this article has been on before. Still very good

  12. Russell Bruce says:

    Excellent article and an important contribution from someone with actual experience of the fishing industry and the dangers of over exploitation of a limited resource. The EU still contributes by investing in processing facilities. With recovery, quotas have been increased – worth £440m to the industry but this achievement by the Scottish government was ignored by the media. It is the fishermen who are now being exploited for electoral gain by the Tories, as I argue in my article on Newsnet
    http://newsnet.scot/news-analysis/tories-just-swallowed-fishermen-whole-spat/

  13. Rab Haw says:

    The fisher fowks mantra in Peterhead is “Charge it to the boat”

  14. Rab Haw says:

    The fisher fowks mantra in Peterhead is “Charge it to the boat”.

  15. Bill McDermott says:

    Thank you for your honesty in writing this article. It gives me, a shellfish farmer wholly dependent on clean, unpolluted waters with a fully functioning ecosystem the opportunity to recommend a book to you by Prof Calum Roberts, born in Wick. It is called the ‘Unnatural History of the Sea’ and it demonstrates in a wholly scientific way what man has done to the oceans.

    At the time of the onset of the CFP in UK waters in the 1970s our seas were already undergoing radical change as a result of overfishing, but not even the fisheries scientists spotted the decline. What had happened increasingly since the 1950s was that our fishing effort had slowly but surely taken out old mature fish, which are demonstrably those fish which are most fecund. But this was overshadowed by a huge increase in young fish as the larger predators were fished out so at the time of EU grants for more and more catching effort, it was clear that an imbalance would result. This was also a time when the Sea Fish Industry Authority, a government agency was putting research effort into fish catching technology. Everybody thought our seas had an unlimited fishery.

    But the problem didn’t end there because the greed of our fishermen drove them to diversify into stock that they would previously have thrown away as unwanted trash. Hence there came along bottom trawling for scallops and prawns, which was like taking a plough to turn over acres of seabed which had lain undisturbed for aeons, thereby demolishing cold water corals and all the structures associated with a diverse habitat.

    No The CFP, while it started off without much aforethought other than the potential of a limitless resource, eventual took a scientific approach and saved us all from the worst nightmare of an ocean desert. More to the point, it is part of the CFP which, with the nature conservation scientists, is working to build a network of marine reserves with no-take zones.

    In case you think I am exaggerating the greed of our own fishermen, I remember about 20 years ago talking to a Buckie skipper about his experiences on making money from the sea and he quite openly told me that 70% of his catch went into the market as black fish. No wonder we lost control of our fisheries. This was the ‘tragedy of the commons’ writ large.

  16. Andy says:

    There still remains one real problem that is destroying the wild fish and shell fish along the west coast of Scotland and outer islands the Northern Ireland which is salmon and sea trout farms. The seas are over run with sea lice produced by fish farms. The toxins from the chemicals used to treat sealice and chemicals used to treat diseases of the salmon and sea trout are poisoning waters and the seabeds. The over fishing of th seas to supply the fish farm.

    1. Somerled says:

      Correct. You’ll struggle to find anyone to discuss that, tho. It’s like smoking, everybody wants to pick on smokers and talk about the dangers of passive smoke but nobody wants to talk about car fumes which do more damage than anyone is willing to admit.

      People like their cars. People like farmed salmon. I personally wouldn’t eat it if you put a gun to my head.

  17. Iain McIntosh says:

    Well argued and fair, reinforced lectures on fishing in the North Sea I had at Aberdeen University.

    The economic imperitive to fish to pay off the loans and interest on boats that were becoming bigger and more efficient was a major factor in depleting fishing stocks in Scotland’s North Sea.

    The fishermen, poorly led (and this remains the case) were slow to see that unless there was regulation, there would be no fish, i.e. as happened with collapse of the Atlantic northwest cod fishery off Canada.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collapse_of_the_Atlantic_northwest_cod_fishery

    Kevin McKenna in The Guardian sumed up the uk political view on Scottish Fishing.

    “Those who choose to put their faith in Gove’s prize may have a much longer wait. Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association in Fraserburgh, fears being locked into a 10-15-year deal with Europe. “The 21 months doesn’t impact on the sector greatly but the real difficulty is it sends a clear signal of what could happen in the next stage.”

    A 1973 quote from a UK civil servant discovered by the Press and Journal journalist David Perry in 2003 in the 30-year-rule release of documents provides a context for last week’s betrayal. “In light of Britain’s wider European interests they, the Scottish fishermen, are expendable.”

    It carries echoes of sentiments expressed by General James Wolfe more than two centuries previously about Highland troops in North America. “They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.””

    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/24/scotland-fishermen-betrayal-peterhead-brexit

  18. David says:

    Excellent article. One thing we should remember is that despite the qoutas 100,000s of tonnes were landed as blackfish. I witnessed this at first hand in Kinlochbervie, Peterhead and… er, Campbeltown. Fishing communities were happy to take their share of the plunder, not just the fisherfolk. So, yes, pure naked greed. Which political party does that put you in mind of.

  19. Smuggfifer says:

    Spot on! I have been saying this for years, not just the past few. It was slaughter in the 80s and we couldn’t get enough on board. Reap what you see, as they say

  20. Jo says:

    Very informative article. Thank you.

  21. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Spot on. The campaign by fishermen to get out of the Common Fisheries was based on a wish to go back to those days described so vividly. The fish stocks are recovering and it would not take long for our people to scoop everything that swims out of the seas.

    Their hopes were always based on a false premise. While we remain under Westminster control the fishing in UK waters is a hostage to fortune. It will be sold off as part of any one of London’s higher priorities. Financial passporting is their number one aim followed by the car industry. There was never any chance that our fishermen would get sole access to the fishing grounds.

  22. Gavin says:

    One consideration notable by its absence from all discussions I’ve come across around fishing rights is that the demise of this uniquely destructive industry is surely imminent.
    It’s likely that within a couple of decades, ‘clean’ fish – meat grown from cells which is identical to, and indistinguishable from, conventionally-sourced fish – will outcompete farmed and caught fish on price, and so render it obsolete.
    If Scotland hasn’t successfully wound down its fishing industry before this happens, then all the jobs in this industry will disappear in one fell swoop.
    Any approach which fails to take this into account is hopelessly naive.

    1. Willie says:

      I think the description of an industry being a uniquely destructive one is by and large accurate when applied to the fishing industry.

      Freed of regulation the offshore fishing fleet would fish stock to destruction in the pursuit of profit.

      And that is absolutely crystal clear in the Fishermen’s Federation’s ill considered wild rush to embrace Brexit as a key to delivering what they thought would deliver free for fishing for them.

      However, their headlong rush to wrap themselves in the Union Jack is now turning to tears and snorters.

      A non materialising Fisher Fool’s Gold Rush they are just like the gullible who believed Brexit would bring £350m a day extra to the NHS.

      One wonders where their political allegiance will turn next.

    2. Somerled says:

      Gavin: “meat grown from cells which is identical to, and indistinguishable from, conventionally-sourced fish – will outcompete farmed and caught fish on price, and so render it obsolete.”

      Please explain. Are you talking about something like soylent green?

  23. Wullie B says:

    The problem I see with your thinking is that boats would overfish the seas like they did at the height of the 80s and 90s blackfish episode, problem is, without EU markets, those fish would not sell on the market floor, and would be paid fishmeal prices, which when I was at sea was about £10 a box forunsold fish, compared to the £70-£150 a box for different grades of haddies. Someone also mentioned the boats designed for Rockall were forced to be decomissioned by the banks wanting their share bank bankrupting skippers was due to overfishing, not quite true, the second decomsioning scheme occured in 2003/04 and it was after France held presidency in the EU and prevented Scots boats from lading non quota fish as they didnt have track record for it, deep water species like Scabbard and ratfish being two of the species which actually relieved the North Sea white fish stocks, many other white fish boats went to the prawns, that was 80 and 90 footers when before that the bulk of the prawn fleet was under 65ft older boats. I know all about the £4million boats designed for the deep water as was aboard one, and most didnt get cut up, they ended up in Walvis Bay in Afric fishing for Hake, boats like Buckies Victory, or Peterheads Resplendent to name a few. As for other saying that fish farming is the way to go, are you off your heads, the damage it does to sea lochs is unbelievable with metres of sludge beneath the cages from uneaten food, full of sealice and worms which have been passed onto cod, lythe and saithe, on the west coast, to the point I refuse to eat that species of fish. Creels are also not the answer for prawns, or to give it its restaurant name of langoustine as the size of those shellfish in creel oly zones like th einner sound of Raasay have grown smaller, it is an unregulated fishery that catches 23 hour a day 7 days a week 52 weeks a yea, the Torridon box lost its MSC certificate due to the sie of langoustine proving it wasnt a sustainable fishery. Coming out of the EU is not a decision that comes lightly to the fishing industry, but when you look at the way fishing is regulated in non EU countries surrounding the North Sea,, and the health of their stocks, compared to the quota system of the CFP, the ill thought out discard rule which means where species caught that doesnt have quota ends up in the landfill rather than going back into the water, (yes they may be dead) to feed the marine ecosystem, from the shitehawk I mean seagull to the smallest crusteaceans on the sea bed amd finally Bill McDermott, how the hell can you believe what Callum Roberts has to say when the man stated that there was only 100 mature cod left in the North Sea, I think the article was in the Guardian if I recall correctly, yet that same day, over 500 boxes of sprags were landed in Peterhead alone. Brussels may have its heart in the right place regarding the marine ecosystem, but it uses flawed policy to try and make it sustainable. Only a fool can repeat a same mistake and expect a different outcome. That is why many modern fishermen want out of the CFP, The Scottish fishing industry might have done a lot wrong in the past, but it has also been at the forefront when it comes to becoming more enviromentally friendly, things like designing gear that is more selective, prwn boats no longer use high floating head lines catching a bycatch of fish compared to 15 years ago, they now have nets that only sit a few feet from the seabed, so that cod and haddock arent caught in the saem numbers, also release panels where juvenile fish can escape from a working net before it is hauled. The article writer had got out of the game long before many of these new innovations appeared and have been successful in reducing by catches, the amount of white fish boats has be cut by 3/4s including the most enviromentally friendly seine netters that dont even to a net, they shoot it in such a way as when the haul the net it closes ropes which herd fish into the net before it is lifted from the seabed in the same place as it was shot into the water, and the boats could make a good living from 2-300 boxes a week compared to teh trawlers which need 5-6 times that, and most of thee vessels were owned in the Moray Firth, places like Hopeman, Lossiemouth, Buckie, Finechty as far as Macduff but were forced to be cut up in the name of the enviroment. Too many rules were made up by EU beaurocrats in th name of saving stocks, but in a way, they have caused more damage as boats have become more efficient, fishing in weathers that wouldnt have been worked 10 years ago. The new designs of boats are nicknamed tractors due to them towing in straight lines week in week out. When people like Hugh fearnly Whittingstal can force EU fisheries regulations to implement ill thought out rules then something is wrong, I refer to the first Hughs Fish Fight, and the strange thing was, if he had gone about it in the right way he would have had the support of the industry, but that man single handedly put the final nail in the CFP coffin when he started trying to get things changed

  24. e.j. churchill says:

    The future of the Scottish Fishing Industry foretold.

    Spend a little time reading of the Collapse of the Canadian Northwest Cod.

    When the Canadian Government banned the Foreign fleets, the Canadians were FINALLY able to reap the wealth rightfully belonging to them …

    It took two years to collapse the Grand Banks to nothing … that was 1992, and it is nowhere near recovery.

    ’tis sad,

    CityBankster

    1. Willie says:

      With the way things are going with plastic poised to become more populous than fish stocks we might well all end up avoiding fish from our diet.

      Like the herring now being fished, it’s recommended that you don’t eat fish over about 9 inches long because after that stage the older larger fish have accumulated more toxins.

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