This week saw the publication of an excellent piece of research from Dr Ian Napier of the Scalloway Fisheries College in to the current state of the fishing industry in and around Shetland.
The Shetland News and BBC Radio Shetland both chose to lead their reports with the fact that more fish is landed in Shetland than the rest of the England Scotland and Wales combined.
While we all like a good news story, I have a few issues with how the figures have been presented.
While the total figure for fish landed in Shetland is impressive at 72,000 tonnes, less than half of that figure was landed by Shetland boats.
Of course, you can argue that in return for allowing boats from other parts of the EU to fish around Shetland, our boats get to fish further afield in return, but let’s examine those figures for a moment.
The total catch by Shetland boats in all waters was 119,637 tonnes. While the total catch for all vessels in the waters around Shetland was nearly four times greater at 450,000 tonnes.
The fishing industry does not live in an isolated bubble, they rely on all the various support services available in Shetland, the Malakoff, LEF, L&M, HNP, Ocean Kinetics, etc. in the engineering sector, LHD, and others in the chandlery sector, wholesalers, Ports and Harbours, transport companies, the list goes on and on.
The triggering of article 50 brings forward the possibility to take back control of UK waters, hinting at the possibility of a greatly increased fishing industry in Shetland.
Of course, that opportunity will only be realised if control of our own waters is not traded away as a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations.
Meanwhile we have the Shetland branch of the SNP calling for control of the fishing around Shetland to be devolved to the Scottish government to “protect it from horse trading in Brexit negotiations”.
It is of course SNP policy to re-join the EU if they achieve independence from the rest of the UK. Strictly speaking, they will protect our waters from “horse trading” by handing it directly back as soon as they possibly can.
We do not yet know what path the Brexit negotiations will take, but it is certain that the EU will regret losing access to UK fishing grounds.
If we listen to some sectors of the press, there will be no deal at all and a “Hard Brexit” will leave us with no special deal to access EU markets, and the EU will consequently have no access to our waters.
The more likely outcome is that there will be give and take on a whole host of issues, and there is every chance that foreign boats will still be fishing in Shetland waters post 2019.
Yesterday the Shetland News published an article celebrating the receipt of £140,000 of EU grant funding by seven fishing related projects.
Lets look again at the figures from Dr Napier. In 2015 Shetland boats landed £86million worth of fish from all areas, but the total catch in Shetland waters was £300million.
I would suggest that the £214 million worth of fish that is being taken out of Shetland waters by none Shetland vessels is an expensive price to pay in return for £140k of grant funding.
I would contest that the overall increased tax revenue from a Shetland fishing fleet and its associated support industries landing a vastly increased catch up from £86 million to £300 million would easily cover the cost of replacing the EU finding ourselves.
There is only one way to be sure of protecting Shetland’s fishing interests, and that is for Shetland to retain control of it’s own waters, not Brussels, not London, and not Edinburgh.
Even in the worst-case scenario with no deals on equal access for Shetland boats to neighbouring waters, the Shetland fleet could land four times the weight they currently do without taking any more fish from Shetland waters than is taken today.