UK FISHING minister George Eustice sought to placate the local fleet’s concerns about the EU’s discards ban on a visit to Shetland on Monday.
He spent around two hours meeting key industry figures at the Stewart Building, the headquarters of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association (SFA). Afterwards SFA chief officer Simon Collins described the talks as “positive” and “frank”.
Eustice said he was conscious of the whitefish fleet’s concerns about reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which mean that from 2016 boats will have to stop fishing once their quota for one of the main local species – cod, saithe, haddock or whiting – has been exhausted.
Fears have been voiced that a strict interpretation of the new rules could jeopardise some boats’ viability, but Eustice said “flexibilities” were built into how they would be implemented.
“They’ve still got concerns but I think they were reassured about making it work and using those flexibilities,” he said.
“If they catch a lot of one species and less of another they can balance one against the other; they can borrow quota from the next year if they need to; where fish are proven to have good survivability rates… they’ll be able to return those and be exempt from the landing obligation.
“The new system won’t be perfect – no manmade system is every going to be perfect – but is it better than what we had previously? Absolutely, I think it is.”
The other major bone of contention is the mackerel deal struck with Norway and Faroe, which Iceland did not participate in. Local pelagic fishermen say they face being stripped of quota which will instead be handed to Iceland.
Eustice said he had heard loud and clear the concerns that if the current “very generous allocation” were to drop in future years “the industry might come under some pressure”.
“It’s important to recognise that the total quota for the Shetland Islands has almost doubled, up to 59,000 tonnes from 32,000 last year,” he said.
“So although there’s a danger that it’ll fall back slightly, you have to look at in in the context that it’s doubled since last year.”
Also under discussion was potential constitutional upheaval if Scotland votes to leave the UK in September.
Eustice said he had emphasised that negotiating EU re-entry “wouldn’t be an easy process”, adding: “I think we can really deliver for the Scottish industry when the UK is one of the largest member states.
“I just don’t think Scotland would have the same clout if it were reduced to having the same sort of voting representation as, say, an Estonia or Lithuania.”
His party, the Tories, have promised a referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU following next year’s general election.
But he insisted the Conservatives’ main priority was renegotiating the terms of EU membership rather than leaving altogether.
While some fishermen’s disdain for Brussels means they may well prefer departing Europe, Eustice stressed that would not “get rid of arguments about fishing” or the need for international agreement.
“The fact we’ve had a protracted discussion and debate with the Faroes and Norway and Iceland over mackerel going over many years illustrates the point,” he said.
“You would still have to have some kind of international agreement, you would still have to at times compromise in order to get a settlement.
“But we’re absolutely clear that the benefits of being in the single market are vital to our economy. That’s why we want to stay in.”
Among those present at the meeting were SFA chairman Leslie Tait, Shetland Fish Producers’ Organisation chief executive Brian Isbister, pelagic and whitefish skippers and representatives of LHD.
Collins said there had been an “open and frank” discussion and praised Eustice’s willingness “to engage in some detail rather than hide behind a political smokescreen”.
“There are grounds for optimism on the discard ban, although we clearly have an awful long way to go,” Collins said.
“Mr Eustice has a commendable grasp of the issues and made it clear that he will roll his sleeves up and work with us.”
He added that contact would be maintained with the minster and his department “to find workable solutions to maintain the health of this vital Shetland industry”.
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