Forty two years ago I lost my deposit as a local Labour candidate when I stood on a platform opposing the European Common Fisheries Policy.
A lot has changed since then and today, on balance, I think we have to stay in the European Union.
My change of mind is not just because Shetland has actually done very well out of Europe: since 1973, Brussels has made available over £270 million in grants to the Shetland seafood industry alone; the many other European grants received by Shetland’s public, private and voluntary organisations make the EU’s total contributions to these islands worth considerably more than all the spending by Shetland Charitable Trust since 1976.
But a major reason for altering my opinion is that it seems daft to vote for something that will make it more difficult to sell our fish to the world’s biggest single market. Cutting off your nose to spite your face?
I know a lot about the EU’s faults. Concern about the fisheries policy has dominated my time as the council’s representative on Europe’s coastal councils’ committee (CPMR).
It’s true that the decommissioning of much of the white fish fleet was extremely painful; as was the days at sea rule; and more recently the well-intentioned but unjust and unworkable ban on discards has caused uproar.
However, the practical effect of these curbs on the fleet has been to help a major recovery in fish stocks. Those local whitefish boats that survive are generally doing better than they were 40 years ago but if the discards ban is fully implemented that could change very quickly, so I can understand why some skippers are flying ‘Leave’ banners from the masthead.
The CPMR is working closely with fishermen’s organisations and with Members of the European Parliament to try to persuade the European Commission that the discards ban and landing obligation cannot and will not work in a mixed fishery like that around Shetland; the evidence comes from the UK Government’s own Seafish statistics which suggest that, if the discard ban is fully implemented in 2019, the income of the Shetland whitefish fleet could fall by between 40 per cent and 60 per cent.
This is clearly unacceptable and it also breaches the part of the regulations that obliges national governments to preserve and protect the livelihood of remote communities heavily dependent on fishing – i.e. Shetland.
There are signs that our arguments are getting through to the Commission, which is why I think we should remain in the EU and try to reform it, instead of casting the UK adrift on stormy seas where our anchors might not hold.
And we should remember that, although fishing is vitally important to Shetland, it is not a big issue in most of the rest of the UK.
It is therefore unlikely that any UK government outside the EU would make protecting our fisheries a priority.
Ministers would have to make deals to get trade agreements with other countries (including the 27 who remain in the EU) and past experience suggests they would be tempted to swap fishing concessions for much more valuable agreements helping other industries that are more important at national level.
So, “…and always keep a hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse,” may not be the most inspiring political message but in this case I suggest it is very good advice.
Councillor Jonathan Wills
Lerwick South ward