TWO very different scenarios for the future of some of Shetland’s key industries were presented and debated during a meeting on the implications of Brexit for the islands on Thursday evening.
Around 20 people gathered in the Shetland Museum and Archives auditorium to listen to two presentations by Simon Collins of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association and local NFU chairman Jim Nicolson, representing the agricultural sector.
The evening was hosted by professor Michael Keating of Aberdeen University, a director of the Edinburgh-based Centre on Constitutional Change.
It was part of a series of public meeting the academic centre is holding across the country to hear the views and concerns of local people and industries.
Keating said it was clear that the popular vote in favour of leaving the EU had hit the UK government unprepared and posed many questions that were not easy to answer.
Fishing and agriculture were both devolved to Scotland yet “Europeanised”, he said.
Collins painted an upbeat picture saying that leaving the EU would free fishermen from the stranglehold of more than 1,000 regulations under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) that had driven many companies close to bankruptcy.
He said the fishing industry was the one sector where the implications of Brexit would be entirely positive and would be felt more or less immediately once the UK had taken back control of its own waters.
He continued that the industry was worried it could be used as a bargaining chip in future Brexit negotiations – hence the industry’s campaign to lobby national politicians.
Collins said trade deals with the EU would be possible as the Faroese example demonstrated. The autonomous island group is part of Demark but outside the EU and trades 42 per cent of its fish exports tariff-free with the EU.
With regards to losing EU grant funding, Collins insisted the industry was not terribly concerned as these amounted to less than one per cent of the value of fish taken from Shetland waters by EU vessels.
During the ensuing discussion he was challenged by Ronnie Eunson, who said that in his lifetime he had never seen more fish being landed profitably in Shetland.
The Scalloway farmer said he agreed that there was a lot wrong with the CFP, “as there is with the Common Agriculture Policy”, but added that as far as he could see local fishermen were making money within the CFP.
Andrew Blackadder added that it was the fault of successive “incompetent” UK governments that the CFP had created so many problems for fishermen.
Brian Nugent, meanwhile, pointed out that fishing as an industry had more or less disappeared from England and thus it was likely to play a negligible role in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
In contrast to the £300 million seafood industry, crofting and farming plays a relatively small role in the Shetland economy.
However, more than half of its annual value of about £15 million comes in the form of European support payments, and no one knows how these will be replaced once the UK leaves the EU in spring of 2019.
Nicolson said the industry had to prepare itself for the future and could not afford “to bury the head in the sand”.
But while Shetland was already on the periphery and therefore needed support to get its produce to market, local farmers had already experienced the collapse of the market for light lamb last autumn.
Nicolson said that without support schemes, similar to the current EU subsidies for crofters and farmers, he predicted “considerable depopulation across the Highlands”, and also from Shetland.
And he insisted that the food and drink industry across the UK need far more attention and appreciation from central government, because it was “larger than the car industry” and was “certainly employing far more people”.
Following the 90-minute meeting, professor Keating said it was clear that everybody present was worried “that they will be traded off in negotiations between London and Brussels”.
“There will be trade offs. To get access to the single market the UK will have to make concessions to the Europeans, possibly freedom of movement,” he said.
“There is a lot of talk in London about special deals for financial services and special deals for automotive industry. I have never heard anybody in London talking about a special deal for fishing.
“It seems to be way down the list of priorities compared with other industries; and even as a trade off it is small beer.
“But if you get the politics right you could get influence in the right places. Certainly in Scotland the fishing industry has quite a high political profile compared with its relatively small size.”