It will be interesting to see how fishing communities vote in the European Parliament elections on 23 May. Some may be tempted to abstain, seeing that we’re leaving the EU anyway (maybe). And, after all, the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy has been a complete disaster, hasn’t it?
The answer to that question (rather surprisingly to someone who in 1973 opposed joining the European Common Market because of the CFP) is “No”.
The fact is that the Shetland fishing industry is currently doing quite well, despite the CFP. It could certainly do better if Europe modified the CFP to give more preference to locally based boats, restricted some kinds of environmentally destructive gear (for example, tangle nets set on the seabed) and paid more attention to the information and opinions of the Shetland fleet.
It would also help if the Scottish Government had the money for more fishery protection staff, vessels and aircraft.
Even with Mrs May’s ‘deal’, Shetland’s seafood exports would face serious obstacles from tariffs. A ‘no-deal’ Brexit would be a financial catastrophe, particularly for the shellfish boats. The only sane course is to ‘remain and reform’, as Mr Corbyn used to say in the 2016 EU referendum, before he nailed his colours to the Brexit mast.
Leaving the EU would not alter the fact that foreign vessels have historic rights to fish in our waters, established long before the UK joined Europe.
Since 1973 many of them have bought catch quota, legally, from willing sellers in the UK. We’ve already seen that the Conservative government is quite happy to betray the fishing fleet by allowing CFP terms and foreign access to continue if we do leave the EU. So we wouldn’t “get our waters back” as that braying ignoramus Farage claims.
It’s true that some ‘stranger’ boats (including foreign-owned but British-registered vessels) are up to fairly dodgy practices just over the horizon, and sometimes closer to shore.
Local trawlers are often obstructed and their gear fouled by foreigners’ long lines and drift nets stretching for miles. This is usually ‘legal’ but it’s not exactly neighbourly and it’s rarely sustainable. The answer to this problem lies not in leaving the EU but in having a greater say in better enforcement of more sensible rules.
Under all of the possible options for the UK leaving the EU, we’d end up as rule takers rather than rule makers, with Scotland’s representatives as mere observers.
We’d no longer even have the pathetic token of a UK Fisheries Minister negotiating in Brussels. That post would continue to be the lowest form of British ministerial life because fishing doesn’t matter at all to the UK Government. It matters a great deal to Scotland, where the industry’s a significant part of the economy.
If Scotland really is dragged out of the EU without our consent, the case for independence will be very much stronger. But whether an independent Scotland then chose to rejoin the EU or opted for a Norwegian-style association, as a self-governing country we’d have real power and influence over the future of fishing.
For that reason alone, it makes sense to vote for a say on 23 May, whether you voted to leave or remain three years ago. It makes even more sense to vote for the only party that’s serious about defending the Scottish fishing industry, the party that has a real chance of winning three of Scotland’s six seats in Strasbourg – the SNP.