For years now, Brexit has loomed large on the horizon for the seafood industry, either feted as a ‘sea of opportunity’ or feared as a tide of trade-blocking red tape, but now the deal has been hashed out and the damaging realities of export disruption unfold, what does Brexit actually mean for the struggling health of one of Scotland’s most significant natural assets – our seas and the fish within them?
Since the die was cast on 23rd June 2016, many within Scotland’s ‘Fishing Industry’ have been vying for position to capitalise on a promised Brexit bonanza, where fishing rights would finally be repatriated, where government would take back control and businesses could invest to rebuild a fleet and catch more fish. As the deal came down to the wire and it transpired that major concessions on fishing were being contemplated, the story became the detail of the Deal. Amidst the wrangling over percentages of fish ‘quota’, the media focussed on the basic political question: had the ‘Fishing Industry’ been sold out? Or were we finally taking back control of our fish?
This debate, however, has rarely considered the condition of the underlying ‘asset’, or how our fish, public fisheries and seas can be better managed for the improved health and prosperity of the nation. Our seas used to be abundant in life, which underpinned many thriving local economies around our coastline. What is often not understood is that many of our fish populations have actually significantly reduced in size or collapsed – and that this pattern of decline continues to this very day. A high-level decadal assessment by Scotland’s top scientists (the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020) recently revealed that even now, almost half of assessed Scottish fish stocks are being fished above their sustainable limits. What are the implications of this Deal for the health of these fish populations? Will Brexit enable their recovery or condemn them to continued decline? To understand this, we need to understand both the details and the history.
Was it a good deal?
The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement runs to well over a thousand pages and sets out the terms of a five year transition. BBC Scotland’s business and economy editor Douglas Fraser was quick to digest it, noting that it has effectively ‘kicked the can down the road’ setting out small, incremental changes to shares of fishing for different quota species over the next five years, after which renewed negotiations would be required if those 2026 shares were to change. UK quota shares will increase gradually over this five year period, eventually to 25% of the value of the EU catch in UK waters. Different increases have been agreed for different ‘stocks’ – so for example, the UK share of Celtic Sea haddock will rise from 10% to 20%, but North Sea saithe from 23% to just 26%. From most ‘UK Fishing industry’ perspectives, it’s a measly smorgasbord, a far cry from the supposed ‘sea of opportunity’, and especially so for the under ten metre fleet that has come off particularly badly.
As the news sunk in, politicians quickly took to the stands, with veteran Banffshire MSP Stewart Stevenson describing it as a “Grubby little deal.” The issue quickly became highly politicised on social media.
🗳 Stewart has been elected five times to represent Scotland’s largest fishing constituency.
— Ricky Taylor (@RickyDJTaylor) December 30, 2020
The Scottish Government soon officially criticised the arrangement as “a terrible outcome” and “very bad,” primarily on the basis that it provides in practical terms very few additional fishing opportunities for the Scottish fleet, axes the albeit dubious benefits of quota swaps with EU countries, and that it removes the ‘Hague Preferences’ (a mechanism by which annual negotiations must account for the fisheries dependency of certain areas of Member States and which Scotland previously benefited from). Most fundamentally, the Scottish Government has objected to where the can is being kicked, because the ‘Deal’ means any further negotiations in 2026 (by which point more fishing rights could in theory be established) will necessarily be part of a wider trade discussion. Fishing is therefore not sacrosanct. It has been linked to the broader trade deal. It is once more at risk of being “expendable”.
For decades, Scottish and UK political attitudes to fishing have been defined by the outworkings of the UK Government’s negotiated access to the European Economic Community in the 1970s. Up until this point the Common Fisheries Policy was a fundamental, but very basic, agreement of the principle that ‘member states’ should have equal access to shared European waters. The accession of the United Kingdom (alongside Denmark and Ireland) in January 1973 prompted a thorough review of this principle and whilst the negotiation meant that member states retained exclusive national fishing rights out to six nautical miles, common access to fish in the 6-12 mile zone was allowed “where this reflected historic access rights”.
History has decided that Edward Heath, the Prime Minister of the day, agreed a deal that was to fatefully and disproportionately disaffect the Scottish fleet. During the negotiation his documents made the damaging remark that the Scottish fishing industry was “expendable,” a word which has echoed loudly right up to the present day.
In the intervening years, the development of an evolving Common Fisheries Policy forced an overall reduction in the capacity of the Scottish fleet which predominantly disadvantaged small boats and forced many out of the industry. There are reams of political analysis of the CFP (eg Jensen, IEEP, NEF) but the human dimension, the painful impacts on communities, is what made fishing such a fundamental and emotive part of Brexit. As former trawlerman David Thomson noted,
“What the figures cannot reveal is the amount of personal tragedy and communal disruption that lie behind them: bankruptcies, the uprooting of individuals and families, the destruction of thriving communities with centuries-old cultural traditions and communal lives. Major harbours, like Lossiemouth, that were the focus of social and economic life twelve months in the year, are now marinas for a handful of yachts.” (Electric Scotland)
The consequences for ‘Scotland’s fishing industry’ (see below) – successive bouts of decommissioning in 1993, 1995 and 2001 – were tough and in some cases irreversibly transformed coastal communities, or left lasting scars that for many have never healed. For the fish in the sea, the CFP – by opening up waters to more boats – led to their over-exploitation, and many fish ‘stocks’ were hammered to the point of collapse. It also converged with significant technological developments, which enabled the general expansion of bottom-trawling across Scotland’s seas. The use of large, durable rubber rock-hoppers and bobbins enabled trawling over previously unreachable areas of seabed causing widespread damage to marine habitats (we explore this history in more detail in our blog article ‘Seabed Reform’). It has been estimated that the proportion of the North Sea seafloor untouched by trawling was 50% at the beginning of the 20th century, but reduced to just 10% by the start of the 21st century. Our seas are being swept at a scale once never imagined.
Commodifying the fish
This literal race to the bottom also ushered in a steady consolidation of the fleet. Big got bigger. After a new system of Total Allowable Catch and quota was introduced to manage catch levels, this system became slowly and quietly, marketised. Fishing opportunity, once gifted as a free right to fish on the basis of track record (boats who could prove their fishing and landings were given quota), has slowly become a tradable commodity, enabling companies to trade licenses and swap quota. Bigger businesses bought up licenses from smaller ones and invested in fishing power until they controlled a disproportionate amount. It is important to note this semi-privatisation was not intrinsic to the original allocations, nor from rules imposed by the EU on the UK or Scottish Governments, but as a result of decisions taken by successive governments to allow quota sales.
With the consolidation of the industry grew a newly coordinated industry influence. And Scotland’s fishing quota is now largely held and controlled by a cluster of Producer Organisations – ‘interbranch’ organisations, that largely represent bigger fishing interests.
Amazingly, and for some time, the UK Government has been subject to infraction proceedings because its Producer Organisations (including Scotland’s) are suspected of not complying with the ‘recognition criteria’ set out by European law (the status of this case, and as it relates to Brexit, remains unclear). For well-known leaders within the Scottish industry, the consolidation of quota was viewed as a foresighted strategic investment, which protected the wider industry from multinational predation. For others, however, it is still seen as a coercive dispossession of fishing rights, leading to domestic domination by a few large companies.
Irrespective of your view, Scotland now has the highest concentration of fishing rights in the UK. A recent investigation by Unearthed analysing quota holdings across the UK found that five families either own, or have beneficial ownership over, 45% of all Scottish quota. Some of these companies were also embroiled in the “black fish” scandal that engulfed the industry. The concentration of fishing rights is arguably equivalent to the concentration of land ownership in Scotland, whereby rights over a once common resource have been ‘enclosed’ and are now controlled by a relatively small number of businesses. There remains some legal ambiguity as to the strength of property rights enjoyed by existing quota-holders in the UK and Scotland, but the Scottish Government is arguably not in a position to remove or redistribute actively-used quota without fair notice. So despite the Scottish Government’s stated view that our fisheries are a ‘national asset’, this is a legally untested proposition – the Fixed Quota Allocation (FQA) system established in 1999 has led to the semi-privatisation of rights to certain fish Scottish ‘stocks’. The resulting corporate interest has largely been represented by those within the industry holding this quota, namely the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) and its members. Many others were forced (or had little financially viable alternative) to diversify into stocks for which quota was widely available like Nephrops (leading to prawn trawling) or non-quota stocks like scallops – presenting significant environmental problems (more below).
The hated CFP
Scotland’s fisheries policy has rarely topped Holyrood’s parliamentary schedule, but the ‘fisheries debate’ prior to the annual End of Year Fisheries Negotiations (where the UK would negotiate its fishing share) had become something of a ritual. For many years many politicians would try to outbid each other’s intensity of opposition to the Common Fisheries Policy, using it as a totem of hurt and shorthand for solidarity with the ‘fishing industry’ (more below). A fact often overlooked is that the CFP was substantially reformed in 2013 and was broadly seen as a decent strategy for the stewardship of public fisheries, that could undo ecological decline and social harm, by requiring governments to start allocating fishing opportunity on the basis of transparent social, economic and environmental criteria. The new CFP was therefore a tool to challenge the growing concentration of quota control and incentivise sustainability. This point was being made patiently and quietly by third sector organisations like RSPB, small-scale fishers (often south of the border, like NUTFA) and their occasional environmental allies (like Greenpeace), as well as by newly-organised units of fishermen in Scotland. Unfortunately, at least until recently, this has rarely deeply penetrated the political noise.
Then the Brexit vote happened.
When a pro-Brexit administration took hold at Westminster, the Scottish Conservatives’ ‘CFP=bad’ mantra naturally hardened, but a Europhile Scottish National Party has also managed to openly deride the CFP, whilst maintaining warmer overtures about post-independence re-entry to Europe. Such political dogmatism and acrobatics have only served to obfuscate issues of genuine substance. The Scottish Government has been trying to have its EU cake and eat it: although it didn’t make the final edit, early drafts of the recently published Future of Fisheries Management strategy (more below) was said to include the legally impossible position that “Scottish Government aspires to become an independent coastal state within the EU.”
This political discourse – a ‘who gets what’ that seeks to support and appease commercial interests has often overshadowed more progressive debate about the condition of our fisheries and the health of our seas. Brian Wilson has recently called out what he describes as the “con trick” of big fishing to talk of the “Scottish fishing industry” as some sort of homogenous, monolithic entity. He rightly highlights that Scotland’s catch sector is diverse and complex and many of Scotland’s fishermen have been marginalised by the system: “At present, local fishermen have no quota for the vast stocks of herring and mackerel west of the Hebrides which are fished by boats from the north-east of Scotland, Shetland and Ireland.” Scotland’s industry is diverse: the vast majority of our active fishermen are still small-scale inshore fishermen. Over 75% of the Scottish registered boats are creel and dive boats (and an even higher proportion of the under 10 fleet), fishing for non-quota stocks and have been described as the Cinderella of fisheries management, because – despite accounting for the majority of employment – they don’t have the resources and representation of SFF and its whitefish members.
What sea of opportunity?
There are arguably signs of this “con-trick” being replayed again, as the big fishing interests who lobbied hard for the ‘sea of opportunity’ now decry the ‘deal’ and the export chaos that has resulted from the bureaucracy of new unworkable consignment arrangements.
— SFF (@sff_uk) January 15, 2021
It is really worth noting that, for some, this is not a manufactured sense of betrayal. There will be many who, whilst remembering the pain of decommissioning, genuinely thought that fishing rights could and would be repatriated and are now reeling from what they see as yet another political promise broken. On Radio 4 (20th January. 6.52am) well-known seafood marketeer and Brexiteer Jimmy Buchan refused to answer any question about his support for Brexit contributing to the challenges currently faced by the industry. For some this is either inexcusable naivete or simply fails to command sympathy. We remain agnostic.
But the statements by SFF, key cheerleaders of a ‘hard’ Brexit, have been less easy to square. In political and industry terms, this has been a bad deal for Scotland and the UK’s ‘big fishing industry’, although analysis still shows that the pelagic sector has benefited more than any other sector. However, in general there has been only a minor reallocation of fishing opportunity from EU to UK fleet, tied to future trade negotiations and no resolution of some of the genuine ecological issues such as the mismatch between species responding to climate change and quota allocation based on pre-warming distributions. But this was the gamble that seasoned lobbyists made. The SWFPA’s perspective is particularly difficult to stomach:
“Whereas we have gained modest uplifts in shares for some stocks the stark reality is that the demersal sector enter 2021 facing significant shortfalls across a range of key species, which is down to the fact that we can no longer enter into direct swaps with colleagues in Europe.”
The sad fact is that whilst these groups were lobbying Government for more share of the demersal fisheries, the fleet has continued to overfish, like fund managers feeling entitled to an end of year bonus whilst having mismanaged the assets they are responsible for.
North Sea cod is the clearest example; a fishery sometimes used as the poster-stock of fish recovery, which – after years of tough measures that brought stocks back from collapse – has for the past few years fallen back into a trajectory of decline due to quotas being set over scientific advice and a large amount of fish being caught but not reported due to it being discarded. 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 by 2015 or 2020 at the latest), this part of the industry has continued to lobby for more quota to fish beyond these limits. And governments have allowed it. Brexit has brought this all into sharp relief.
Whilst the Wilson piece is right to shine a light on the self-serving “pretence” of the industry being “a single entity,” it neglects to mention the underlying condition of our fish populations. This is a fundamental conversation to have. While Wilson references the need for fairer allocation of this now modest Brexit windfall, the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020, mentioned at the start of this article, makes crystal clear that our fish populations are not in good shape. Wilson’s argument is therefore missing a key – and difficult step – namely that the post-Brexit fishing opportunities, desperately needed to help rebalance historical and regional inequities, won’t come unless our Government faces up to the environmental reality of overfishing, puts in proper management and rebuilds our fish populations. When pointing out that many fish populations are in chronically bad shape at least parts of – the ‘Scottish fishing industry’ are understandably defensive (see postscript), but it needs to be a central part of political discourse.
And whilst the “fishing barons” do not preside over a singular ‘Scottish fishing industry,’ and despite some of the fraught sectoral fault-lines, there is also an undeniable togetherness within the industry – a culture, that arguably is under threat, a communality of cooperation at sea, that is built upon a shared understanding and mutual respect for those who hunt and gather, risk their lives on a daily basis (fishing is arguably the country’s most dangerous occupation), and sadly well-warranted suspicion of regulation. There is much that bonds the industry, uniting fishers and processors alike.
And this was evidenced in the recent scenes outside Westminster, which highlighted a coordination within the industry that transcends the (albeit over-simplistic) east-west divide and the gear conflict (that is sadly rife in some areas). As seafood lorries journeyed to Parliament Square to protest the red-tape besetting some of the most fragile businesses, hatchets are temporarily buried for the protection of the ‘Scottish fishing industry’.
For the smaller-scale live shellfish sectors, Brexit has so far been an unmitigated disaster. Although the trade deal swerved the worst outcome of unfeasible tariffs, the ‘frictionless’ trade arrangements so important for the export of live produce have been replaced by new systems that have quickly buckled under pressure. The trade disruption and the governmental response to it has been described as an “absolute mess” with most of the industry forced to tie up, cut off from their markets. Meanwhile, those in the white fish and pelagic sector are re-routing and landing their catch abroad via Denmark (around 50% of mackerel caught by Scottish fleet is already landed abroad), sparking concern that this may spell a more terminal restructure of the supply chain.
Herring and Mackerel landings by Scottish boats (2018). Data from Scottish Government (Marine Scotland).
The situation has also exploded the myth that all fishermen voted for Brexit.
Some of us in the fishing industry have been trying to highlight the threat we faced from Brexit for years. Sadly both the @BBCNews and other media gave a greater voice to those supporting brexit and a narrative they wanted rather than reason.https://t.co/URYkmYhXzC
— SCFF (@CreelScff) January 13, 2021
The oft-quoted statistic that “the fishing industry overwhelmingly voted to leave the European Union”, used by various political parties for various political gains was based on a research published by University of Aberdeen that primarily canvassed skippers from the North east of Scotland and found 90% of them supported Brexit. Furthermore, 88% of the 78 Scottish respondents to the study also skippered larger boats (ie >10m) – this is a demographic which is not fully representative of the diversity of the industry, something which most pollsters would avoid at all costs.
This whitefish trawl segment of the fishing industry was always less exposed to the market disruption that has come to pass. They do not rely so heavily on next-day logistics. Represented by Scottish Whitefish Producers Association and its parent body SFF it has dominated – and by some analysis, captured, both the UK and Scottish media in the years leading up to Brexit day. A study by the New Economics Foundation found that “the SFF received 49% of the total coverage and the top three organisations 85%, while organisations specifically representing the small-scale fleet received only 2% of the media coverage.” While, many inshore fishermen are now fighting for their livelihoods and finally making clear there was never unanimous support for Brexit in the first place, the SFF has once again sought to position itself as a defender of the entire Scottish fleet, writing to the UK Government bemoaning the Brexit deal as “the worst of both worlds”. How can politicians cut through the fog with this lobbying strength at play?
Where are all the fish?
Cutting through the fog, however, is exactly what needs to happen, because Scotland’s fisheries are a shadow of their former health. Whilst there is a huge opportunity to rebuild our fisheries and potentially re-localise seafood supply chains, there is also a huge disconnect between the current political and economic debate about access to fishing and the actual environmental reality of Scotland’s seas. The world is in the grip of a climate and biodiversity crisis. Our marine environment, Scotland’s seas and the fish in them, are very much part of that. Less than 40% of UK fish ‘stocks’ are known to be sustainably exploited and the picture is little different for the populations that are found in Scotland’s waters.
With a bitter irony, the Brexit deal has seen an increase in quota for stocks that are in such poor condition that these new fishing opportunities are, for the time being, meaningless. West coast cod is a stand-out example. Scottish boats used to land circa 4,000 tonnes of cod from the west coast in the 1970s, a fish once synonymous with abundance. Unfortunately the population collapsed due to overfishing and – despite a ‘Cod Recovery Plan,’ Real Time Closures and a Conservation Credits Scheme – has simply never recovered. After it started spiralling in the 1980s, the spawning–stock biomass (SSB) for cod still remains “extremely low.”
The current scientific advice is therefore simple: avoid catching any cod on the west coast. The task now is to recover fisheries like these, not catch more fish from them. This fact is rarely reported and highlights a singular, gaping hole in the grand Brexit and fishing narrative to date: where have all the fish gone, why are their populations not recovering and what do governments need to do to make public fisheries more sustainable?
The answer is that the health of Scotland’s fish populations are in broad terms facing three major issues: over-exploitation (through overfishing…), suppression of recovery (through large-scale bycatch of baby fish…), and the disastrous, steady dismantling of their ecological foundations (seabed habitat damage…). To understand whether the recovery of our fish is possible or probable post-Brexit, we consider each of this trio of pressures (as briefly as possible) in turn.
The first problem is, on the face of it, straightforward: overfishing regrettably continues – Scotland is one of the worst culprits of overfishing in Europe. Many stocks have been given ‘zero catch’ advice: (such as cod. whiting, herring) and yet governments, including our own, are “consistently setting limits above” this scientific advice. Inside Europe, the UK-Scottish delegation, alongside their fellow member states, have either “been actively pushing for fishing limits to be set above scientific advice, or… failed to prevent such limits being put in place.” Some of this is arguably done to counter the outdated system for allocating quota – the University of Aberdeen has recently highlighted the absurdity of fishing quota shares being allocated on the basis of catches in the 1970s, which has little reference to the shifting distribution of fish populations. As climate change bites, some fish are moving north and fishing grounds are no longer yielding catches like they used to. It means that fishermen are catching fish for which they have no quota, creating bottlenecks (or ‘chokes’) in shared fisheries. The paper lends support for a system of ‘zonal attachment’, long advocated by parts of the industry. The Brexit Deal, unfortunately has not sorted this out, as Dr Bryce Beukers Stewart reflects:
“Many underlying issues remain unsolved, and without a zonal attachment approach to allocating catch shares, the effect of climate change on fish stock distribution will continue to wreak havoc on arrangements.”
Throwing away small, baby fish
However there are some problems which no amount of zonal attachment would resolve. Overfishing is not just the result of a mismatch between quota and the geographic distribution of fish – it is a symptom of the fishing methods which have come to predominate in Scotland’s seas. The intensification of fishing techniques – the use of stronger nets, capable of being dragged across larger areas of seafloor (harder ground) – have decimated some fish populations and forced our fleet to quite literally fish down the food chain. Nowhere is this clearer than in our prawn trawl fishery. Fishermen targeting, landing and selling fish used to throw prawns (or langoustine) back into the sea as a ‘waste product’ – there was no market for this crustacean while cod was plenty (we have spoken to a fisherman, not long passed, who can recall prawns being brought ashore in nets to a west coast port and locals not even knowing what they were…). However, as fish stocks collapsed and smaller boats became locked out of the quota pools, prawn trawling started to become a hugely important fishery in its own right.
Scotland is now the largest producer of langoustine in the world, and yet prawn trawling comes at a huge cost. Bottom-trawling the seabed with nets of a smaller mesh size, bycatches large volumes of other fish, often baby fish (read more detail in our blog Prawn Potential: the benefits of more sustainable seafood).
So at first glance, there is nothing to worry about. Stocks of west coast langoustines are judged to be managed ‘sustainably’, but it disguises the dire consequences for other fisheries. How will populations of west coast cod rebound if large numbers of baby cod fish are being accidentally caught and thrown back dead into the sea? In 2007, for every 100 tonnes of prawns landed in the Clyde, 24 tonnes of fish were being caught and thrown back dead. The industry’s solution has been to strive for more ‘selectivity’ – bigger mesh sizes, avoidance plans, escape panels, so that fish can survive the trawls. But whilst there have been some advances, much of the fleet is not adopting best practice. As the Government document below shows, fishery managers concede that improved ‘selectivity’ in prawn trawling is ‘difficult to achieve’.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that the problem itself remains hidden. The Landings Obligation (or discard ban) introduced fully in 2019 made it a legal requirement to land all fish. However landing large numbers of juvenile fish not only looks bad, it starts counting against the limited quotas allocated for struggling stocks like cod and whiting. Once these quotas are exceeded, in theory fisheries managers should be stopping all pressure on those fish populations. Where is the incentive to land fish that could close your own fishery? Our joint investigation into illegal discarding on the west coast indicates that illegal discarding is routine and official inquiries back this up. Illegal discarding has therefore become sadly rife in Scotland’s fisheries, but is treated almost as taboo and too difficult to resolve.
And yet the bycatch problem is being slowly normalised. Catches like the one above are now routinely used in the media (below) to illustrate fishing. This is not normal. This is not a healthy fishery.
Illegal discarding is undermining the whole fisheries system. If fish are being caught and thrown back into the sea dead without any recording, then fisheries managers have no way to account for this effort. Fisheries scientists are now beginning to speak out. A new paper by Dr Lisa Borges has found that a huge increase in fishing quotas has been applied to help support implementation of the Landing Obligation (LO) despite the fact that the discard ban has not been enforced and fish are still being thrown away. The study warns that this discrepancy is leading to a major, unmeasured increase in fishing pressure, and therefore risks an “implosion” of the EU fisheries management system, and by implication the fisheries system that the UK and Scotland remain committed to. The problem is expressed below in pie charts (from an Our Fish briefing):
And yet this system ‘implosion’ is arguably just a symptom of an even more fundamental problem – the ecological crash that is currently underway in Scotland’s seas. Whilst there are many beacons of hope showing localised environmental recovery and habitat restoration, the overall picture for Scotland’s marine environment is regrettably (and unforgivably) one of decline.
Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020 has found that fishing is the dominant anthropogenic pressure in our seas and contributes to the continued reduction in the extent of seabed habitats. We have written and researched this particular problem extensively, but the problem is painfully simple: the expansion of bottom-towed fisheries in recent decades (methods that sweep and dredge the seafloor) is damaging the very seabed habitats that fish rely upon to breed and feed and thrive. The science now shows us just how important habitat is for fish. Research by SRUC confirms the Firth of Clyde and Northeast Irish Sea are vital areas for juvenile whiting, with most adult fish in the west of Scotland originating there. We need to safeguard these areas with decent spatial management, not continue a pattern of fishing that suppresses the recovery of fish populations.
History has played a role here: the widespread impacts of bottom-trawling have been in large part a consequence of historic overfishing, and the consequently constrained opportunities to trawl for whitefish, which led many into prawn trawling and also pursuing non-quota species such as scallops, caught by scallop dredging – two of the most ecologically damaging methods of fishing available.
But whilst governments on the one hand acknowledge the issue, action is limited. Protection comes in the form of designations, often without any management on the ground – our sea is now littered with ‘paper parks’ – marine protected areas that have either little or no protection from the most damaging fishing methods. Whilst the government claims that 37% of our seas are ‘protected,’ less than 5% of our inshore seas are safeguarded from bottom-trawling and dredging. The decline, despite MPAs, continues: over 50% of Argyll’s known flame shell beds have disappeared since 2010. The loss of Scotland’s marine habitats, in our own generation, is quite literally undermining the foundations of future fisheries.
So, Brexit has not delivered a good deal for most fishing industries around the coasts. Neither the UK nor Scottish Government have used this complete upheaval of fisheries management to resolve historic injustices regarding who gets to catch fish, and where. Overfishing, discarding of young fish and damage to the marine environment have all continued whilst the UK Government has spent its time negotiating its trade deal – and the Scottish Government has used its time criticising the UK Government about Brexit and fishing. In the end they have neither recovered the stocks we have lost, halted the decline in our seas, nor negotiated any significantly better access to them. Many operating in fragile coastal communities are facing a very grim situation unless something changes. In the end both fishermen and the marine environment have lost out. Where do we go from here? How do we recover what has been lost?
The Brexit Deal itself sets out a framework for EU-UK cooperation and a series of principles which, on paper, are very clear and sensible. The Deal requires that ‘parties’ promote “the long-term sustainability .., and optimum utilisation of shared stocks,” use “best available scientific advice”, ensure “selectivity in fisheries to protect juvenile fish” and minimise “harmful impacts of fishing on the marine ecosystem” (p 261).
These are undeniably healthy political principles and some are so straightforward and specific – that reneging on them could therefore be viewed as a breach of the deal. For as long as the constitutional settlement of the UK stays as is, it remains up to the contracting parties to live up to these principles.
So how can we bring Scotland’s fish back? Where does Holyrood sit in this context? The UK has, in theory at least, withdrawn from the Common Fisheries Policy. It has been replaced by the UK Fisheries Act (which in practice still relies on several sections of the reformed CFP). For some time this legislation was criticised by Scottish Ministers as a power grab, but simultaneously failed to bring forward any separate complementary Scottish legislation. Ultimately the Scottish Government recommended it was brought into Scottish law through a Legislative Consent Motion. As of 1st January, Holyrood has relied on this legislation to manage our fisheries, despite the fact the SNP in Westminster abstained.
The UK Act is a ‘framework’ to facilitate the sometimes constitutionally-strained cooperation between the ‘Fisheries Administrations’ of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It codifies a ‘UK license’, such that a license granted by any of the Fisheries Administrations will be effective throughout UK waters.
The UK Act is not great; it gives a lot of ‘wriggle room’ and removes the deadlines in the CFP to end overfishing and discarding. It also essentially maintains the status quo, fails to realise the opportunity to tie access to our public marine assets to the deliver of public goods. Perhaps more significantly, the Act has not been developed in Scotland, was not supported by at least 47 of Scotland’s 59 MPs and gives only a small role to Scotland’s Parliament. This remains so incompatible with the recommendations of the Smith Commission that it is almost inconceivable to think that it has been allowed to happen – would the Scottish Parliament allow Land Reform to be legislated for in Westminster?
Whilst Europe has been fairly criticised for opaque technocracy, our MSPs have been given little chance to debate these issues at Holyrood. And at the very time we need open debate, the Scottish Government has published a Future Fisheries Management Strategy that signals a quietly regressive approach that loosens our commitment to fishing at sustainable levels. The first step in recovering Scotland’s seas and the fish in them is therefore to improve and empower Scotland’s decision-making on fisheries management. We need a Scottish Fisheries Act. And within it we need a whole host of things that are missing from the Westminster equivalent.
As part of this the Scottish Government urgently needs to bring forward a new plan for our inshore seas, that includes setting out what kinds of fishing activity can take place where. Limiting the places scallop dredging and bottom-trawling can operate has been repeatedly recommended, including by research commissioned by Regional Inshore Fishery Groups and as a solution to the problem of bycatching critical stocks such as West of Scotland cod, but it has never been done. This is not only needed to halt the ongoing loss to Scotland’s inshore marine habitats, but also because it has been repeatedly projected to deliver better employment, and better economic returns for Scotland. It is also increasingly a key component of fighting the climate crisis. This issue – the recognised need for sensible restrictions on damaging fishing methods – now has significant and growing public support.
Finally, in order to end the most egregious illegal fishing and discarding damage (discussed above), Scotland needs robust, tamper proof vessel tracking fitted to all Scottish fishing boats. The Scottish Parliament voted for this in December 2018’s fisheries debate and the Scottish Government committed to delivering it in the 2015 Inshore Fisheries Strategy, but it has yet to happen. This is a no-brainer and crucially it will help ensure fisheries management decisions are made on the basis of much more comprehensive information about what is caught and who fishes where. The current position from the Government is that they will track only scallop dredge vessels (around 110 boats) and the massive pelagic trawlers (around 20 boats). This is a significant roll-back on previous positions, and is itself not certain given that the Minister has been making this same assertion for four years and has already ran more than £500k over budget – as the public pays for each scallop dredge vessel to be fitted with around £20k worth of kit.
These actions will not solve all the problems; they won’t, for example, address the fact that there are currently no limits on some of Scotland’s other commercial fisheries, such as the amount of wrasse caught (predominantly to supply the salmon farm industry), the amount of time or the number of pots fishermen can use fishing for them (something being repeatedly called for by some within the creel fishing sector), or guarantee even any good understanding of the stock size or health. But they are a start. We contend they represent the first steps in a move to recover what we have lost.
A Scottish Fisheries Bill for marine recovery
The Brexit deal has not delivered for Scotland, but, the key principles that existed before the Brexit vote are as true today as they were then – if Scotland’s fishermen want to catch more fish, the first priority is to recover those we have lost, not hope and negotiate for a bigger share of the scraps that are left. The challenge is to recover our seas and the fish populations in them so that this public and natural asset can deliver for Scotland as a whole.
We need to invest in that recovery – and the good news is that taking steps to recover our seas are also economically sensible in the short and long term. For our embattled fish populations, Scottish Ministers need a statutory plan that goes well beyond slicing up, commodifying and asset stripping our sea. To revive our seas Scotland’s politicians have a once-in-a-generation chance to invest in recovery. Time to grasp the thistle…
Postscript: Open Seas campaigns for sustainable fishing and promotes the social and environmental benefits of sustainable seafood. We are convinced by the evidence that bottom-towed fisheries in particular are having unsustainable impacts, not just directly on fish populations, but the life on the seabed itself which supports those populations. We are saddened by some sectors of the fleet that seek to discredit established science or create strawman arguments that dismiss environmental concerns as efforts to put parts of the industry out of business. While it suits short-term positions to take these stances, this is patently not true. We are motivated by a concern about the future viability of inshore fisheries, the wider health of Scotland’s marine environment, and the importance of these for underpinning resilient communities. The statements made by industry lobbyists on these important issues is only serving to heighten our resolve to get information out into the public domain for the long-term public interest. We are always open to discussion and will take any feedback on this, or any, article. There are better ways to manage the fisheries and the evidence bears this out. Without political action, we risk sleep-walking into another decade of decline – and for many fish populations and many fishermen, they will simply not survive another ten years.