The Codfathers and Coastal Clearances

Rob Brown finds deep, dark truths about Scotland’s fishing industry being blithely sailed over as the Tories and the Nats battle shamelessly to exploit Brexit.

On a recent shufty around the East Neuk of Fife, I did not just surrender again to the lip-smacking aroma from the award-winning Anstruther Fish Bar and Restaurant but also wandered along the harbour front to pay my first visit to the Scottish Fishing Museum. It was a good decision.

Not only does this facility convey the inventive ways people in this part of the planet have harvested a healthy source of protein since the first human settlements here in 7000 AD, its final displays pose a question we should all be pondering seriously as Brexit looms – is there a future for Scottish fishing?

That might seem a daft question to ask when Davie Milne, chairman of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, is standing at the bow of his boat yelling about how small seaside towns and villages around Scotland could be “re-invigorated” by escaping from the Common Fisheries Policy. This Fraserburgh-based fisherman blames Brussels for having “wrecked” many of this country’s coastal communities.

He’s far from alone. Almost two decades ago to the day, Iain MacSween, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Organisation, served up this juicy soundbite to a House of Commons inquiry into sea fishing: “The confirmation of property rights in the fishing industry will do for coastal communities what Highland clearances did for the agricultural sector.”

Aye, there’s naethin’ beats the Highland Clearances when it comes tae grabbing the headlines back hame. And why not? The life spirit has been drained out of many of our once teeming fishing ports as it was from the bens and glens.

Elie and St Monans – just a few miles along the Fife tourist route from Anstruther – are eerily quiet places. They have retained some lingering charms but that just means they have been colonised by the Edinbourgeoisie, who thunder over the Queensferry Crossing in their mighty four-wheel drives for a bit of respite from Auld Reekie in their pricey second homes.

To observe what have been romantically hailed as ‘the last of the hunter gatherers’, most of us nowadays can only watch fly-on-the-deck TV documentaries. Repeatedly churned out at Pacific Quay, such lightweight series cheerily sail over something the Scottish Fishing Museum does well to remind visitors: fishing boats have always been alien predators in the oceans’ ecosystem.

If vigilant Eurocrats or mandarins in Whitehall or Edinburgh didn’t keep a close eye on these gargantuan gannets, they would soon not only wipe out fishing stocks but completely wreck the marine environment by hoovering up the entire seabed. For, in stark contrast to natural underwater creatures, industrialised leviathans increasingly deploy state-of-the-art satellite and sonar technology to hunt not simply to make a reasonable living but to amass huge financial fortunes.

Dive into official Defra statistics – as Greenpeace did for a recent Unearthed investigation – and you find that almost half (45%) of Scotland’s fishing quotas are wholly or partly owned by just five powerful families who have become a perennial feature in the Sunday Times Rich List.

For good reason these coastal clans have been labelled the Codfathers (even though the white fish they land is usually haddock). Some of them were caught up in one of the biggest criminal overfishing scams ever to reach the country’s courts. The ‘black fish’ scandal was a sophisticated racket to systematically evade quota restrictions and land 170,000 tonnes of catch illegally over several years.

Among those prosecuted were four members of the Tait family, worth £115m according to the Rich List. Their Klondyke Fishing Company is well-named: the second-largest quota holder in Scotland, it has paid out over £56m in dividends in the past five years.

Much of this is down to the approach successive UK governments have taken to implementing the CFP. As in so many other economic sectors, they opted for turbo-charged neoliberalism and totally unleashed market forces. In effect privatisation of the sea, such deregulation made it far easier to swap, sell or lease quotas to others. Fishing rights became a tradeable commodity, with predictably disastrous results: not just a ‘Spanish armada’ of ‘quota hoppers’ storming into the North Sea, but concentration of ownership of fishing rights – and hence vessels – in fewer and fewer hands.

Today the bulk of UK quotas are controlled by a handful of family dynasties and a trio of foreign multinationals. Two-thirds of Scotland’s total annual catch by value is landed by just 20 super-trawlers, which pursue the most destructive forms of fishing.

A golden opportunity to challenge that oligopoly has been presented to us by Brexit, which necessitates a new regime to replace the CFP. A radical redistribution of fishing rights would throw a lifeline to small-scale coastal fisherman, who operate 80% of Scottish boats but are forced to make do with 1% of quotas. As their operating margins are often close to zero, their existence is precarious.

So, having issued a dark warning about ‘coastal clearances’ back in 1999, what is the Scottish Fishermen’s Organisation now proposing should be done to reinvigorate our coastal ghost towns and villages? Next to nothing.

In a statement to Unearthed at the tail end of last year, the SFO said keeping the existing quota distribution would recognise “the investments made by fishermen and fishing businesses over the past 20 years, and as such helps to maintain business stability within a period of great political uncertainty.”

The case for the status quo – unbridled capitalism – will doubtless be swallowed hook, line and sinker by both the Tories and the Nats since they have swum together into the same neoliberal net. As they each trawl for votes in the north-east, the only difference between these shameless opportunists is that the SNP still peddles the delusion that it could successfully negotiate ‘Independence in Europe’ without submission again to the CFP.

Throughout his long spells as an MP and MSP, Alex Salmond represented several north-east seats but he was as economical with the truth as any central belt economist/banker when it came to telling his constituents and the country what is actually required to bring a new lease of life to our lengthy coastline – exiting the EU, redistributing fishing quotas and imposing restrictions on second home ownership (as has started to occur in some parts of Cornwall).

With Nicola Sturgeon also ducking and diving on this matter, it has been left to a coalition of small-scale fishermen, academic experts and conservation groups such as Greenpeace to campaign for radical quota reform. Government ministers, they argue, must recognise that fisheries are a public resource which should be stewarded to secure the greatest social, environmental and economic benefits.

But who is going to listen to any of them? Who is itching to visit the Scottish Fishing Museum and learn about the deep, dark truths lurking beneath the depressingly shallow debate about this sector’s future? For the average landlubber, fish simply means fried haddock in batter from the local chippy or a cheap salmon steak supplied to supermarkets from often sea lice-infested cages.

The law of the free market jungle is the same as that of the oceans: the big fish eat the small fish. But the primary purpose of progressive politics should surely be to enact robust laws to curb relentless and reckless accumulation.

Since legislation to end the Darwinian distribution of existing quota does not appear to be in the pipeline – at Westminster or Holyrood – it would be foolish to expect any great Brexit dividend for small-scale fishermen, far less a new generation of fresh hunter-gatherers. The most any of them might get is a chance to scavenge for any new meagre quotas that can be wrung out of Brussels.

The only hope of real change to which any of us can cling is that the biggest fish in the Scottish political pond – the Sturgeon and the Salmond – might soon eat each other, freeing up the water for a truly radical independence movement to flourish.

Comments (19)

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  1. Iain MacEchern says:

    Could you explain in detail the radical quota reform that you briefly mention. How would it work and who would dictate the quotas and how would they be monitored? Would all foreign boats be excluded from Scottish waters? Would the fishermen favour a complete break from the EU and all its regulations, or would they prefer an EFTA type arrangement possibly forming an alliance with Norway, Iceland and The Faroes?

  2. Independent Woman says:

    This article did not add much to my existing knowledge. Where can I find information on the campaign to radically reform the quota system. (I think that is what the phrase ‘radical quota reform’ means but I suppose it could mean use the existing system to redistribute quotas)

    1. Rob Brown says:

      If you google the obvious keywords you’ll find plenty online about this matter, supplied by the coalition to which I refer. I should add that Labour’s shadow spokesman on fisheries has also been pushing for a redistribution of quotas, but members of the one-time People’s Party are now mere sprats in the Scottish political ocean, as we all know. Personally, I see little point in debating the practicalities of radical quota reform in any detail whilst the Indy cause is owned and controlled by a party which isn’t genuinely committed to independence, equality or ecology. I’m just sea sick of the SNP’s skippers banging on about escaping from the CFP whilst simultaneously proclaiming their support for staying in/rejoining the EU and a neoliberal economic blueprint drawn up by a former PR flunkey of Fred the Shred. I realise most of its supporters – including some Bella subscribers – are reluctant to rock the boat in any way but we’re on a voyage to nowhere unless there’s a mutiny in the national movement soon.

      1. CJ says:

        I am sure the Nats have plenty up their sleeves that can not be approached until the indy movement has been dealt with as after all in the best interests of Scotland.Until then they are not going to publicise anything that can be scrutinised by the likes of people like yourself.So if I were Salmond or sturgeon I would let people like you know my plans last.

  3. Me Bungo Pony says:

    Surprisingly, given my history concerning Mr Brown’s contributions to this site, I agree with the bulk of what he has to say here. The reality of the fishing industry has been hidden behind a wall of disinformation from its leaders and politicians eager not to rock the boat (sic) for many years. There can be a burgeoning Scottish fishing industry with bustling fishing towns if the stocks are managed better and the size of boats limited. All good stuff.

    I just wish he wouldn’t try to shoe-horn in his anti-SNP, “vote for me”, “radical left-wing Indy party in waiting” fantasy into everything he writes. I suppose it’s just his way.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Glad to have you aboard on this one. Believe it or not, I did seriously consider desisting on this occasion from my customary call for a real radical independence movement, but the lack of that is at the root of the phoney warfare over fishing quotas as in so many other spheres. We need to get down to the root causes of our crisis since radical, as we all know, stems from the Latin word radix or root.

      1. Me Bungo Pony says:

        Have you considered the Greens? 😉

        1. Rob Brown says:

          I would, if they weren’t green in every sense, especially when it comes to the EU. Something I hope to expand upon at some point.

  4. w.b. robertson says:

    Only a Scotland outwith the EC could control its own waters and could reform the present system. But the SNP can hardly argue for that. Which explains, to a sizeable degree, why some North East constituencies were lost to the party.

    1. Me Bungo Pony says:

      How does that work? The Scottish fishing industry wants to leave the EU so it can land more fish, but we can only stop them landing more fish by …. leaving the EU. But if we stay in the EU we can stop them landing more fish …. but …. somehow …. we can’t. It’s a very confused reasoning.

      I reckon logic and the Green (both political and simply ideological) surge would see the the changes needed come to pass within the EU. Outside the EU, market forces and willfull ignorance will see the industry destroyed.

  5. William Nicol says:

    It’s Scotland just let the politicians or should I say Martians piss on us from a height.
    we haven’t the balls to stand up for ourselves, highland clearances people and communities for sheep and you go to the supermarket and you still get it stuck up you £14 a kilo sheep saturated with water, beef the same.
    You didn’t need a sign to tell your coming I to Scotland, the road just got narrower.
    a country more beautiful than Switzerland and its run like the fifth world.
    oil and mineral resources a plenty and more important a hard working workforce in a cheap labour market.
    Don’t blame brexit for all the problems it’s an natural progression of this country’s incompetence.
    do you not remember the factory ships up at Ullapool, Russian.
    the problem is that the word honourable is not understood by politicians.
    the word and culture greed is.
    William Nicol

  6. VERDUN Breck says:

    Remember, it is the Dictatorship in Brussels that made the rules , 2 weeks before the UK joined the EEC/CM. ALL waters a round the EEC belong to the EEC, not the countries. Yes, UK could have 40% of the fish around our coast, while the CM/EU have 60% of the fish around our coast. Even told how much of each type of fish they could catch in one yr. When they hit their limit they have to dump it over the side I know one who had to dump 1000 Mackerel over the side on one trip. Yes, the BRAINLESS DICTATORS in Brussels could only make laws like that. Never saw or heard of the EU boats doing the same.

    1. Me Bungo Pony says:

      And if they let them land as much as they want, the North Sea would have been rendered lifeless decades ago. It’s not the EU that is “brainless” on this one.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    Indeed. In the near-future-set movie The Executioners, a small child draws a picture of a fish with legs, because she has never seen one nor anything living in the radioactive, poisoned seas. A propertarian grab of marine ecosystems sounds just as toxic. As indeed is cultural respect for ‘entrepreneurs’ who are unprincipled and possibly often quite stupid lawbreakers who fail to grasp (or are uninterested in) the complex adaptive systems of nature. Corruption in British society might look different from that in oft-criticized other countries, but is corruption nevertheless. Short of arming the fish, arm the coastguards, and close the fisheries, stop polluting the seas (and skies) and maybe the marine environment will recover.

  8. Iain MacEchern says:

    Rob, your article and subsequent responses in the comments section is a large part of the reason that the radical left has no MSP’s or MP’s, and has allowed right wing politicians to dominate.
    You blame everybody, The EU, SNP, Westminster, the fishermen, Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. Yet you fail to give any coherent answers. When asked you reply “Google it” Then in the comments you say “I see little point in debating the practicalities of radical quota reform in detail whilst the Indy cause is owned and controlled by a party which isn’t genuinely committed to Independence, equality or ecology. If that’s the case, and I don’t believe it is, then that’s the very time you should be debating it. Anybody can snipe at their opponents, but until the radical left can come up with answers to our questions, they will remain in the margins contributing nothing.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Funny how the radical left has become such a potent force down south that the only factor currently holding the Tories together is fear of Jeremy Corbyn in No.10 while it remains marginalised in Scotland. The New Nat leadership seems to have succeeded in doing something Maggie and Blair never totally managed between them. For now.

      1. Iain MacEchern says:

        Such a potent force down south! You have to be kidding? I don’t think Nigel Farage or his Brexit party will be shaking in their boots. Could you explain how you think it’s been marginalised in Scotland, please don’t tell me to google it, I would rather hear your take on it.

        1. Rob Brown says:

          Labour is only in trouble over Brexit because Corbyn did the the People’s Party did not honour the People’s Vote delivered in June 2016. It was doing really well up to then.
          As for how the radical left has been marginalised in Scotland, that’s clear from the post-79 history of the SNP culminating in its current economic strategy being drawn up by a former PR flunkey for Fred the Shred.
          But not all of us are going to lie down and let the pinstriped neoliberals roll over us, as proven by such initiatives as the Scottish Degrowth Commission.

          1. Rob Brown says:

            That first line got a bit garbled and should read:

            Labour is only in trouble over Brexit because the People’s Party did not honour the People’s Vote delivered in June 2016.

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