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Scottish Independence Debate / Referendum: Bitterness rather than excitement

In his take on the Scottish independence referendum the executive officer of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association (SFA), Simon Collins explains why in the view of the local industry the choice between Westminster and Holyrood is like being asked whether you prefer to “be boiled or fried”.

The Shetland spring is famous for the arrival of all sorts of migratory species, mostly with feathers but always colourful and noisy. This year they include an entirely new breed: journalists keen to discover what we all think about the referendum on Scottish independence.

Our 14,000 or so votes have never been so important, it seems. If the number of reporters and TV crews is anything to go by, Shetland is suddenly the key to Scotland’s future. And here in the fishing industry, the heartbeat of the archipelago for over 4,000 years, our views on all things maritime are sought after daily and noted with the utmost solemnity.

All very flattering, and we don’t blame the journalists for coming. Nobody would deny that the referendum is a pretty big story. But don’t expect Shetland’s fishermen to get all that excited about it.

This has nothing to do with cynicism, and certainly not apathy. Given their dependence on what happens elsewhere, Shetlanders have never been apathetic. It’s simply the result of long and bitter experience.

The point is that fishing really matters to Shetland, and far more than it does to Scotland as a whole. We’re not simply talking about generations of living off the sea, or pretty boats bobbing about in the harbour for tourists to take pictures of. Lots of places have those.

What we have in these islands is a dynamic, forward-looking industry that together with aquaculture accounts for about a third of our economy. Its contributions to employment and value added dwarf even the booming oil and gas sector. This small archipelago is sitting right in the middle of some of the most productive seas in the world; it lands more fish than England and Wales combined, and ranks second only to Peterhead in the UK in that respect.

Bearing all this in mind, you would have thought that fisheries ministers from the UK and Scotland would have at least half an ear to Shetland’s take on the fishing issues of the day.

Not a bit of it. Let’s take a test case, an issue that has lost none of its bite since it was partially settled a few weeks ago: the mackerel dispute.

We need not go into the details of the dispute here, which involved two rogue states – Iceland and Faroe – unilaterally claiming vast increases in mackerel quota, and getting away with it.

The point is that mackerel is Shetland’s – and for that matter the UK’s – most valuable catch. A third of the Scottish fleet that catches it is based and owned in Shetland. At certain times of the year the mackerel migrate to within a stone’s throw of our cliffs, and fishing vessels from all over Europe come to our waters to harvest it.

In February this year, the European Commission finally succeeded in stripping quota from EU countries, mainly the UK, handing it over to Faroe. The biggest loser in this shocking transaction was Shetland.

Which brings us back to the referendum. When fishing matters so much to Shetland, and so much of the country’s mackerel catching is based here, you might have thought that at least one of the UK and Scottish fisheries ministers would have come here to thrash out the arguments and firm up their negotiating positions vis-à-vis the Commission. Neither of them found the time to do so.

At the end of the day, we might accept that some over-riding raison d’état had to prevail in reaching the mackerel deal with Faroe. Shetland acknowledges that it is part of a larger community; we are not innocent of other objectives in the bigger picture.

But nobody in either the UK or the Scottish governments has bothered to explain what those might be. Indeed, fisheries ministers compounded their irresponsibility over mackerel by claiming that the recent settlement was a good deal. It was not a good deal at all, and it is deeply insulting to Shetlanders to claim otherwise.

On the one hand, we had the fisheries minister in Edinburgh claiming that “the UK government has … traded away our [fishing] industry as a bargaining chip in EU negotiations. A Scottish minister would never do that.” Well, he just did.
On the other hand, the UK fisheries minister said that the mackerel deal was a source of “great satisfaction”. It certainly must have been – in Faroe.

In a situation where neither the UK nor the Scottish fisheries minister can be bothered to listen, let alone explain or apologise, on an issue that matters so much to these islands, visiting journalists will have to forgive a degree of bitterness on our part.

Asking whether Edinburgh or London is likely to serve our interests best is like asking whether we prefer to be boiled or fried. We’re sick to death with both. “A plague o’ both your houses” … maybe Shakespeare had Shetland blood.

This article was first published in The Scotsman on 9 May 2014.