Like most countries, Scotland is facing multiple crises: we are facing climate change and biodiversity emergency, in throes of constitutional upheaval, are still responding to a pandemic and are likely to enter recession and an unemployment crisis.
These are time for big ideas and we are now calling on Government to take measures that will both repair the health of our marine environment and play a serious role in supporting economic recovery.
In June this year, the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery (AGER) set out a requirement that the Government recover Scotland’s economy in a way that delivers best for communities, jobs and without undermining our natural resources. Scottish Government’s response has echoed this – stating the ambition to build a future that “conserves and grows our natural assets” and “invests in and uses Scotland’s natural resources more efficiently”.
Our marine area represents a huge national and natural resource, and yet we are mismanaging it… badly. Even before the covid-19 crisis, the Government’s management of our inshore seas perform poorly: overall value of fish landings fell £26million between 2018 and 2019; numbers of fishing jobs have declined by 316 since 2010; and the health of the marine environment has fallen drastically, even for supposedly protected habitats – we have lost many tens of hectares of flame shell beds and much more seagrass meadow since 2010.
Government attempts to reverse the economic declines such as the deregulation of electro-fishing for razorclams or setting fishing quota beyond sustainable limits, have backfired entirely and only served to further weaken economic performance and environmental health.
The government has already handed somewhere around £9.5m to fishermen and £10m to fish processors as part of an industry hardship fund. However, fishing is entirely absent from the Scottish Government’s “Economic Recovery Implementation Plan” and the marine environment only obliquely considered when discussing offshore renewables. It is therefore unclear how the Government plans to recover our seas and the fishing industry reliant on them.
Here we set out 3 ideas to recover the health of our seas and deliver improved social and economic return – a Blue Recovery.
The major advantage of a blue recovery in our seas is that the government action needed to protect and recover our marine environment is also the action that will return most social and economic value from them. In our seas, economic recovery and environmental recovery go hand in hand.
We are calling for the following three things to ensure a Green Recovery also works for our seas.
1. Limit the Footprint of Dredging & Bottom Trawling in our Inshore Seas
Our inshore seas are fundamental to the functioning of the marine ecosystem – they hold fragile habitats like maerl beds, and they are important for spawning and juvenile fish. However, they are nearly all unprotected – damaging fishing like scallop dredging and bottom trawling are permitted in around 95% of them – including within most Marine Protected Areas and through many areas of sensitive habitats. This makes no ecological sense – we don’t allow combine harvesting through most of our land – but it also fails to deliver the best economic benefit because they are inefficient forms of fishing, catching or killing lots of non-target marine life.
It is well understood and documented in scientific literature that areas left free from the impacts of scallop dredging & bottom trawling hold larger numbers of fish, perform better as nursery grounds and allow for the recovery of habitats lost in the past 40 years due to their impact – Scottish Government has been required to act on this issue via its commitments within the National Marine Plan but has failed to do so in the 5 years since the requirement came into force.
What is less well understood is that allowing trawling and dredging through most inshore seas is actually a very poor economic use of the natural resource.
Government commissioned research in 2014 found that restricting trawling inshore would deliver between 99 and 2,700 jobs over 20 years by allowing lower impact fisheries. Further research published in 2020 found that “redistributing access to fishing grounds [between trawlers and creelers] to maximise employment could increase employment by around 10%… [or] £14 million of gross value added (GVA)”. Research from the creel federation itself found that creeling an area would provide 2.8 jobs for every 1 job lost tailing prawns on a bottom-trawler.
Meanwhile establishing spatial restrictions in the scallop fishery has been a recommended action in a report commissioned by the Government in 2013 and a report provided to the West Coast Regional Inshore Fisheries Group in 2019 in order for the fishery to meet sustainability requirements – something that is needed if the fleet is going to remain viable. According to Seafish, it is currently only holding on because of relatively low fuel prices, with the UK fleet as a whole recording net profit margins of -2% in 2018 and only 3% in 2019.
Add to this the fact that Scottish Government’s own research also finds scallop dredging to be the most exposed form of fishing to the impact of Brexit, negatively impacted in all four scenarios considered – a poor fit with the wellbeing economy principle of resilience.
We call on the Government to establish a modern coastal limit to reduce the footprint of dredging and bottom-trawling in our coastal seas, for the sake of our environment but also to deliver more jobs, landings value and economic benefits from our sea.
2. Recover and Sustainably Harvest our Publicly-owned Fish Resources
The amount of fish caught by Scottish boats is managed by quota in some fisheries (e.g. cod) and not at all in others (e.g. crabs or wrasse). Even outside of the EU, Scotland has an obligation to look after stocks and empower fishermen to catch the maximum yield that can be sustained in the long term (MSY), but nothing more.
In simple terms, this is equivalent to spending the interest in an account: the larger the stock and greater the rate of return, the more to spend each year. Sadly, after years of overfishing the stocks are depleted, for example the sustainable limit for North Sea cod is currently around 14,500 tonnes whereas it would be nearer 50,000 tonnes if the stock were rebuilt.
Rather than stick within this sustainable limit (and despite EU law banning overfishing), the Scottish Government continues to permit fishing beyond these limits. Sticking with the metaphor, the Minister continues to spend more than the interest earned each year and continues to deplete the reserves. By allowing discarding to continue, they also allow an unrecorded amount to be wasted (taken from the account with no reproof). By allowing continued damage to vital nursery and spawning grounds, they also reduce the rate of return.
The result is that the amount of fish available reduces year on year, damaging the marine ecosystem, reducing returns to the fishing industry and meaning there is less and less low-carbon seafood available to the public. This is the polar opposite of the Government’s stated aim to “conserve and grows our natural assets” and it must end.
We need post-Brexit fisheries legislation to mandate limits for the amount of fish caught in all fisheries (currently many are not managed at all, including wrasse, scallops and crabs) and use these limits to recover the publicly owned asset, and fish it sustainably (whether by quota limits or other mechanisms).
3. Reform the system for Allocating Quota and Access to Our Seas and Give Priority to Those Delivering Most for Scotland
The AGER report included a recommendation that the Government should make “targeted use of rates relief to incentivise economic recovery and greater use of conditionality in business support”. Unlike farming (and until the £9 million given in covid-19 relief) most fishing activity did not receive any direct public subsidy, but case law states that fish and the seas are a publicly owned resource given to fishermen without charge – that is to say, they are an indirect subsidy. The fishing industry is also given a complete exemption from fuel duty.
At present no conditionality applies. Fishermen acting responsibly are not rewarded and those acting irresponsibly are not adequately penalised. The Industry operates in ways that make sense to individual businesses and not that provide best benefit to Scotland as a whole. One example of this is that around 50% of the herring and mackerel caught by Scottish boats is landed directly to foreign ports, by-passing Scottish jobs and consumers – when Scottish Government attempted address this, fishing associations lobbied against it.
Boats operating outside of 12nm often make use of a visa loop-hole to employ contract workers via third party agencies from the developing world (making up roughly one fifth of fishermen’s jobs) often on contracts which are opaque and do not allow them ashore outside of ports, and bypassing Scottish jobs. The inshore Clyde trawl fleet are now lobbying to be allowed to do this too.
Sanctions for illegal fishing are ineffective and those who break the laws profit from it and do not suffer long-term consequences. The majority of Scotland’s scallop dredge fleet has been rated “critical” on the Seafood Slavery Index for several years.
This system does not serve the interests of Scottish economy, society or environment.
From January 2021 Scottish Government will be managing its fisheries outside the EU common fisheries policy. We must take this opportunity to reform the system for allocating quota and other forms of fishing opportunity to de-concentrate fishing rights and ensure access to public fisheries are given to those who deliver best social and environmental benefit
The ideas we set out here would not only deliver for our economy and provide a much needed boost to long term productivity and recovery from this current crisis. They would also have a tangible and meaningful impact on the parallel climate and biodiversity crises. It is bizarre that fishing and our marine environment are absent from the Government’s recovery plans, this clearly needs to be addressed.
Now is the time for long term thinking – we hope that Scottish Government have the courage to make it happen.