MSP Tavish Scott (Viewpoint: Brexit? A jump into the unknown; SN, 16/06/16) and veteran councillor Jonathan Wills (Cutting off your nose to spite your face; SN, 14/06/16) have written, rightly condemning the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Its effect on Shetland’s fishing industry has been immensely damaging. However, I am unable to accept their conclusion that Shetlanders should vote to remain in the EU.
Tavish and Jonathan represent groups who have, either, a long-standing political commitment to the EU or are in the position of having to work with the EU if Britain stays in. Speaking publicly in their official capacity, they must have due regard for their respective groups’ positions.
Bodies such as the North Sea Commission and fishermen’s associations tend to recommend “engaging with the EU to bring about change, from the inside” which is a fine soundbite but in reality is misguided. Why, after 40 years of autocratic mismanagement, will the EU change now?
The suspicion lingers that these groups fear retaliation for speaking out, should we stay in. Such speculation is encouraged by the threatening tone of reported remarks from senior EU politicians like unelected EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker.
Juncker’s comments were atrocious. He referred to “deserters” no longer being welcome, and “Britain would have to face the consequences” of being “regarded as a third country, which won’t be handled with kid gloves.”
These are our friends? No. They are the same lot who hijacked our fishing grounds back in 1970. Let’s remind ourselves how it all began:
The EU (then EEC) acquired our fishing grounds by passing the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) into law, on 30 June 1970, six hours before official acceptance of Britain’s application! It became part of the body of existing EU law, which new members joining are compelled to accept.
The Heath government protested but caved in, accepting that most shabby of shakedowns and our legendary fishing grounds were duly ceded to EU control when Britain joined, on 1 January 1973.
A quota system was implemented to divvy out the spoils and ostensibly, manage stocks of individual species at “optimum, sustainable levels”. Britain’s share of the catch was drastically reduced and once flourishing coastal fishing towns withered.
Commoditisation, the buying and selling of quota (a UK scheme), combined with CFP catch reductions, led directly to the current state of affairs in which 25 per cent of all English whitefish quota is now owned by a single Dutch fishing ship, or “super trawler”. How must that grate in Grimsby?
Shetland has suffered grievously from the decommissioning of the whitefish fleet; the days at sea rule (Scottish government); the sell-out to non-EU Faroe of our pelagic fleet whereby Faroese vessels now take more mackerel from Shetland waters than our own fleet is allowed to catch; and to crown it all, the “unworkable” discards ban.
Discards are only necessary because the EU chose to employ a quota system for managing individual fish stocks. In a multi-species fishery such as ours, it is impossible to influence which species end up in the net. So if, say, hake are abundant, as now, vessels quickly use up their quota for hake and are not allowed to land any more.
However, when they continue fishing to fulfil their remaining quota for other species, they cannot avoid catching hake. As they are not allowed to land it, the unwanted hake must be ‘discarded’, mostly dead, back into the sea so that they can continue fishing for other species, keeping what they have quota for and discarding the rest.
The obvious, ‘right-thinking’, response to this is outrage at the apparent waste of good fish. However, another less obvious view is possible; namely, that by removing large predator fish from the sea – they all eat each other at different times – and returning them dead, we are saving smaller fish from being eaten and supplementing lower levels of the marine food chain.
Predictably, public outrage became the dominant view and the EU’s response was a precipitate ban on discarding with an accompanying obligation to land unwanted by catch. No proper consultation with the industry nor even consideration of its consequences, was entered into.
Under the new rules, currently undergoing staged implementation, fishermen will continue to be apportioned quotas for individual species but will no longer be allowed to discard unwanted fish. They must sail, perhaps, hundreds of miles to land it and will neither be allowed to sell it for human consumption nor to give it away; not even, to schools, hospitals or care homes. Most of it will be dumped to landfill. Precious fishing time and fuel will be wasted steaming ashore with landfill costs on top.
Meanwhile, the marine food chain, having adapted to vast inflows of possibly millions of tons of discards over a long period, will be in for a rude shock. The outcome of such an abrupt halt is unpredictable and may well be extremely damaging.
The irony is that other stock management methods, which do not require discarding, e.g. ‘days at sea’ combined with temporary area closures, as employed in Faroe, are perfectly feasible. Such a system has the advantage of compensating for inaccurate stock data by catching more of what is abundant and less of what is scarce. Discarding may then be banned without damaging the industry.
Every system will encounter crises however the key is reliable, timely data on current stocks, over time, to establish realistic annual total allowable catches (TACs). Thereafter, the monitoring and policing of actual catches is crucial, although unexpected sea events will continue to confound science for decades to come.
Jonathan Wills claims the Shetland seafood industry has received £270 million, £6.5 million per year, in EU grants over forty three years and proposes that as a reason to remain in.
I simply ask: “Is that all the compensation we are to receive for the loss of our fishing grounds, as a result of which, at least, several tens of millions of pounds worth of fish are taken from our waters by EU and non-EU vessels, every single year?”
Add to this Jonathan’s assertion that full implementation of the discard ban will result in 40 to 60 percent loss of income for the Shetland fleet. Another devastating blow, which on its own will quickly overtake the benefit of all grant aid ever received from Brussels.
What good is grant aid if the giver subsequently puts you out of business, we may well ask? Grant aid in any case stopped in 2014 when unelected Brussels mandarins pronounced their ‘fatwa’ that Shetland is no longer to be considered a “peripheral region”.
Tavish and Jonathan both worry that leaving the Single Market will make it harder to market our fish. Why so, won’t the Europeans want to eat fish any more?
In fact, our non-EU neighbours, Norway and Iceland, experience no such difficulty. They are members of the European Economic Area (EEA), which the EFTA website describes:
“The European Economic Area (EEA) unites the EU Member States and the three EEA EFTA States (Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway) into an Internal Market governed by the same basic rules. These rules aim to enable goods, services, capital, and persons to move freely about the EEA in an open and competitive environment, a concept referred to as the four freedoms.”
“The EEA EFTA states normally fund their participation in EU programmes and agencies by an amount corresponding to the relative size of their GDP compared to the GDP of the whole EEA (proportionality factor). The EEA EFTA states participation is hence on equal footing with EU member states.”
So Norway and Iceland enjoy all the benefits of the Single Market and retain control of their fishing grounds. They arrange their own trade deals, too.
In return, they make a contribution, not to the EU budget, but for the benefit of fifteen less prosperous EU countries. Contributions to the EU budget are limited to EU programmes in which they choose to participate and are paid for pro rata on the same basis as EU members.
So the fear that leaving the EU would make it more difficult to market our fish and make us less competitive is groundless. Far from representing a “leap from the Noup of Noss”, leaving the EU looks attractive for Shetland.
It’s true that, should Britain leave, Shetland’s interests would still be at risk. Neither Holyrood nor Westminster may be trusted to protect them. Only we can do that and our chances of swaying Holyrood are somewhat better than of swaying the EU.
The game has changed in Shetland’s favour, Scottish nationalism has seen to that. Whether Shetlanders join an independent Scotland or not is their decision and why on earth would we remain loyal to a Westminster that sold us down the river, for a second time?
Shetland’s geography, history and culture and the sheer scale of its fishing and hitherto, oil and gas industries, make it unique among British islands. Neither side can afford to lose us.
We must remind government of that at every opportunity to capitalise on our possibly temporary advantage.
Should Britain stay in, while we would hope for the abolition of the CFP and for Shetland to win a say in the management of our own fishing grounds, most would settle for simply being listened to about the problems inflicted on them by Brussels.
But how can we make them listen? Certainly not by giving them a cheerful “thumbs up” as we vote blithely to remain. We must vote leave.
Shetlanders need not fret over the national impact of voting leave. Their ‘widow’s mite’ of an electoral contribution will make not a shred of difference. They may safely vote for Shetland’s vital interests, so sending a message to Holyrood, Westminster and Brussels that we are unhappy with our current deal.
When Denmark joined the EU in 1973, Greenland faced an identical situation. Their fishing grounds were hi-jacked by the EU. They immediately sought autonomy, won it in 1979 and left the EU in 1985. That option remains open for Shetland.
Nothing has changed for the better since we voted leave in 1975, quite the reverse. By returning another strong leave vote we shall serve notice that we want and expect change. That we shall protect our vital interests and will move house if necessary to do that.
Shetlanders will be well advised to vote leave on 23 June.