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Scottish fisheries – sustainability and independence

15 Oct 2013
Bertie Armstrong

Bertie Armstrong

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishing Federation (SFF) writes for World Fishing & Aquaculture on the Scottish fishing industry.

If we look at the scientific and economic facts that describe the fishing industry and its impact, we see that the raw materials ('biomass' – the quantity of adult fish in North East Atlantic) has been consistently increasing over the past decade, and the percentage take by the industry ('fishing mortality') has been radically reducing.

All this is very good news for the image of Scottish fishing as a whole, working hard to prove that it is a responsible industry aware of all the implications attached to long-term sustainability of world fish stocks.

Scottish fishermen have been at the forefront of pioneering a whole range of conservation initiatives, including technical alterations to nets to reduce discards and real time area closures to protect spawning fish. It should never be forgotten that such efforts have come at considerable sacrifice, with the number of Scottish fishermen in the industry at the lowest ever recorded level and the fleet size much diminished.

But convincing the public to notice and appreciate our efforts has been a hard nut to crack, and there are a few simple reasons for this.

Firstly, bad news is always more interesting than good. For example, the "Last 100 cod left in the North Sea” story of September 2012 - it was refined nonsense, but the headline became big in the media and stuck in people’s heads.

Secondly, the current cycle of CFP reform has been the first significant section of fisheries legislation, which has fully involved the European Parliament. Until the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009 the EU was just consulted on matters of fishery management. Now it forms one half of the decision-making process. This resulted in greatly increased lobbying of parliamentarians during the CFP reform process. All stakeholders were involved in similar lobbying activities, but the efforts of environmental NGOs have had a great big impact on the final regulation, including, for example, a final approach the reduction of discards.

Lobbying is a core business for environmental NGOs, who have the additional luxury of being unfettered by any direct responsibility for the continuation of an industry. The classic lobbying process of campaigning on simplified, publically appealing headlines (discards are morally wrong; we must have all stocks above Maximum Sustainable Yield; closed areas are good; touching the seabed is bad; little vessels are good, big are bad etc.), has exercised influence particularly on some parliamentarians and on Commissioner Damanaki. This has been on superficially attractive political grounds rather than disciplined argument and common sense. This is a very bad thing. Using landing obligations in the final regulation as an example, the banning of discards is a political rather than a practical decision. In practice there is now a wide gap to be bridged by the industry and lawmakers between a plausible-sounding but largely political set of aspirations and an actually workable set of plans to permit the sustainable harvesting of fish.

A favourable public attitude and proper understanding of the facts will help meet this big challenge, and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation has just launched a new website 'Fishing for the Truth' (www.fishingforthetruth.co.uk) to help redress the present imbalance. 

Onwards, upwards
Fish don’t know about borders and EEZs and therefore fisheries management is, by necessity, an international endeavour. We are at the starting point now of the negotiating season which will set sustainable catching opportunity and regulation for 2014, and in some cases well beyond. All the focus of our politicians, fisheries managers, scientists and the industry must be on that.

However, over the next year we will have an extra dimension to consider in the Scottish industry - the balance of benefit and risk to our international relationships should constitutional change result from the September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

Inside the UK there is executive devolution of fisheries management to the home nations; the Scottish government therefore already manages the industry within that framework. The central question to be answered is: would the industry be better served in international arrangements by our present EU Member State (the UK) whose fisheries policy we influence by right, or would a much smaller unit negotiating only for our own interests be better? (The difference is number of votes in decision-making which is set on population size). If there is to be change, how difficult would the journey be to the new place and what would the rules of the game be? 

There have already been over-simplified and superficial arguments offered on all sides of the subject. Let us put the topic aside while we work together over the negotiating period to ensure we actually retain an industry to consider. Thereafter, there is much work to be done by both campaigns to illuminate the issues. We will be on the case; but the one thing we can say with certainty is that the industry will not tolerate any attempt at political manipulation. In order that every industry participant can make their own properly informed choice, a clear, sober picture of all the issues will be required. Let’s call it 'Project Reality'.

Images for this article - click to enlarge

Bertie Armstrong MSC certified Scottish North Sea haddock The number of Scottish fishermen in the industry is at the lowest ever recorded level

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