2007 - 2020

Fly Fishing by the Tait Family and the New Brexit Cod Wars

George Kerevan on the Scottish Government’s “export or die” approach to food production and myths about the fishing industry.
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SOMETHING fishy is going on.  As everyone with a bit of nous has realised since the Brexit referendum in 2016, there is no chance in Hades that rEU is going to let the UK close off its seas to European fishing – at least, not if we want access to continental markets for other goods. Brexiteer claims that quitting the EU will mean Scottish and EU fishing folk escaping the Common Fisheries Policy (or a re-labelled version) are as reliable as that promised extra £350m a week for the NHS or no customs barriers down the Irish Sea.
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Now the UK Government is actually negotiating an actual trade deal with rEU, the fishing issue is emerging as a potential deal breaker.  The Danes, who land 60% of their catch from UK waters, are particularly determined to retain access to British seas.  Esben Sverdrup-Jensen of the Danish Pelagic Producers’ Organisation warns: “I can’t really accept the argument of handing anything back to the UK, as Danish fishermen have been operating in those waters for centuries.”  Welcome to the next fishing war.
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The Tory Government is actually offering to grant rEU fishing boats continued access to British waters but on the basis of a new system of quotas.  However, this would still reduce rEU access under the CFP which results in European boats landing six times more fish from Britain’s coastal waters than domestic boats.  The French are playing hard ball and threatening to blockade Calais within 24 hours of any deal that cuts their catches.  A blockade at Calais would stopper 17% of UK trade in goods – worth circa £100 billion a year.  Protecting exports might trump protecting the fishing industry, adding another complication to agreeing a deal.
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Expect the SNP Government to wade into this fight on behalf of the nation’s fishing industry.  Mind you, this will create obvious tensions as the SNP leadership is also determined to return an indy Scotland to EU membership.  Defending both the fishing industry and supporting the EU could prove complicated to reconcile.  Add to this the impact of Covid-19, which has effectively shut down the local fishing industry as markets dried up.
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AT SEA WITH NIGEL FARAGE
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Yet what exactly are we defending when we speak of the Scottish sea fishing industry?  These days, the industry contributes a miniscule 0.2% of Scottish GDP, though obviously it is locally much more important in the North East and Shetland.  Total fishing employment overs around the 5,000 mark with the same again engaged in onshore processing (though this is a largely immigrant workforce).
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Some 64% of the total UK fish catch is still landed at Scottish ports.  But the nature of the industry has changed dramatically in the last generation.  The cod and haddock sector has been reduced to a shadow of its former self through overfishing and competition.  Ditto with herring (the so-called pelagic or deep-sea sector) which underwent a terminal decline in the 1970s during the era of super trawlers.  True, after a massive industry shakeout and modernisation, the remaining Scottish pelagic fleet is now highly profitable – but it is tiny.
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Meanwhile, the introduction of EU quotas has proved a deceptive reform – ecologically and economically.  In theory, quotas restrict over-fishing but in practice any excess catch is either landed illegally or simply destroyed. Plus, the trading of quotas has resulted in a massive concentration of ownership and monopoly which restricts incentives and flexibility.  Those few individual monopolists – family and corporate – owning quotas obviously concentrate their landings at harbours where they get the best return – not to the places where they deliver the best seafood offering to the local community. Result: lots of landings to Peterhead, where the buyers for European restaurant markets come to bid; to Fraserburgh with its massive processing plants; or direct to ports in Denmark and Holland where the EU companies that control the vast bulk of Scottish pelagic quotas are based.
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But quotas and monopolisation also led to organised crime.  In 2005, the Scottish police uncovered an ingenious conspiracy to evade quota restrictions for mackerel and herring, using underground pipes and secret weighing machines.  Some 170,000 tonnes of over-quota fish were involved.  A series of court cases resulted in 2011 and 2012 in which three fish factories and more than two dozen skippers were hit with fines and confiscation orders, including some of the largest holders of Scottish quota. Among those prosecuted were four members of the Tait family – worth £115m according to the Sunday Times Rich List – whose Klondyke Fishing Company was the second-largest quota holder in Scotland.
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Also prosecuted was a fishing partnership that ran a trawler named the Christina S. In 2012, two men involved in the partnership – Ernest Simpson and his son Allan – were handed fines and confiscation orders totalling more than £800,000.  Four years later, the Christina S was among the flotilla of vessels that sailed up the Thames with Nigel Farage, to protest EU Common Fisheries Policy only weeks before the Brexit referendum!
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ANOTHER CYCLE OF OVER-FISHING
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But the core problem is not the EU.  With quota monopolisation, the bulk of the Scottish industry retreated to inshore fishing for scallops and Nephrops – scampi to me and you.  This has resulted in yet another round of over-fishing to service foreign markets.
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As Scots fishing boats were squeezed off the high seas by declining stocks, lack of quotas and EU competition, fishing folk refocused on scallops and scampi using a variety of methods from pots to small trawlers. Result: this is now the biggest sector of the Scots fishing industry.  But there’s a problem.  Inevitably, any kind of industrial harvesting puts the available stocks under threat.  Vessels forced out of deep sea fishing by the quota scam were refitted to dredge for scallops, which are not a quota species. But dredging the seabed for scallops and scampi is hugely damaging to every other species in the vicinity.  So the process of over-exploitation begins anew.
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What to do with fishing after lockdown?
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The real agenda extends far beyond the Brexit negotiations.  For basics, we need to prioritise sustainability by ending the monoculture and monopoly approach that leads to over-fishing. Let’s start by ending the industrial despoiling of fish spawning grounds that results from scallop dredging for a few delicacies that go to supply expensive foreign restaurants.  Of course, that cuts across the Scottish Government’s “export or die” approach to food production.
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Instead, we need to promote local consumption of fish.  The Covid-19 emergency has prompted a discussion about reducing extended and vulnerable global supply chains and returning to more localised production and consumption.  Fortunately, Scotland is in a rare position to achieve this given our rich land and sea resources.  But this will mean a break with the Scottish Government’s support and subsidy of foreign-owned agribusiness.
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We also need to reform the quota system to end its monopolisation.  But that is not merely a legal reform – it has to do with restructuring the Scottish fishing industry.  For instance, it is difficult for smaller trawlers to take up mackerel quota without investment in new onshore facilities to support them. The smaller harbours from which local boats operate desperately need new facilities, including storage, refrigeration, and transport.
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The Scottish Government is often a tad too close to the fishing owners.  Recently ministers refused to disclose the identity of vessels given fines for suspected illegal trawling inside Loch Gairloch, an inshore seabed vital for spring spawning herring.  Illegal fishing in protected seas is too frequent. This is down to the under-resourcing of fisheries enforcement in Scotland, but also because the legislative regime is weak.  Posturing about defending Scottish fishing from the UK Government is one thing, protecting a sustainable industry is something else.
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A campaign to defend sustainable fishing in Scotland is being run by Open Seas, a group that combines hard-headedness with a strategic vision. Scottish ministers should listen to what Open Seas is saying – especially about the need to end monopolisation within the fishing industry and return control and quota-rules over to local communities.  For it is precisely the local communities who know best how to conserve – because their very existence depends on it.  It’s time for a Blue Recovery.
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  1. Adrian Roper says:

    Worth checking out the cooperative model that is thriving in Maine, USA.

    https://maineaquaculturecoop.com/

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