All five of the general election candidates for Orkney and Shetland are demanding major reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) to give greater control over the direction of the industry to communities that depend on it.
As Scottish ministers, MEPs and fishermen’s leaders pressed European Commission bureacrats this week to be radical in the overhaul, proposals for which are to be published in June with a new system due to be in place by 2012, there was unanimity in the contestants’ disapproval of the current system.
Most outspoken is UKIP candidate and fisherman Robert Smith, whose party’s raison d’etre is getting Britain out of the European Union. He said: “I’m a creel man so I would get all the whitefish men round a table and draw up policy built on their information. They know best how to run their industry. Same goes for the pelagic guys.
“The CFP would be torn up and burnt. A 200-mile limit would be introduced if that’s what they want. The eco-propaganda used to batter them would be exposed as the lies it is and a true picture of the industry, warts and all, would be presented to the people of this country. We have nothing to hide. They do. The fisheries protection agency would be used to protect the fishery – not persecute the fishermen.”
He said that in his own creel sector, withdrawal from the EU would mean lifting of regulation and an end to form filling.
Under UKIP, quotas would be abolished and any fisherman could propose an idea which would be put to a vote with fellow fishermen the electorate. A majority of 80 per cent would be required for a rule to be introduced.
“The species restrictions on licences will be removed. If you have a licence you can fish for what you want. Aggregation penalties will be removed. Under the present system we’re decommissioning ourselves. Aggregations between under 10 and over 10 will be permitted. Eventually I would like to see an end to licences.
“We have a largely unsubsidised industry and world class products. We provide food, jobs, profit and export income. It’s time we stopped being treated like criminals.”
Liberal Democrat candidate Alistair Carmichael, by contrast, believes we have deal with the world as it is.
“The upcoming reform of the CFP in 2012 is going to be enormously important for our local fishing industry. I have worked closely with local organisations representing fishermen since my election to parliament and shall continue to do so if I am re-elected.”
He said the case must be made for removing as much control as possible from the EU. “The Regional Advisory Councils which were set up after the last round of CFP reform in 2002 have been a success. They now need to be strengthened and given real management powers. “Even without that sort of fundamental reform, however, there are still a number of changes that can be made to improve things for our fishermen. The use of scientific data that is almost two years out of date by the time it is used to inform decision making is wrong. I have long argued for an early ‘quick and dirty’ assessment of data from scientists. This is necessary if the climate of mistrust between fishermen and scientists is ever to be improved.
The election of an SNP fisheries minister in Holyrood raised high expectations in 2007. Unfortunately in recent times there has been an increasing feeling of disappointment as he has failed to deliver for the fishing industry in the Northern Isles. Most disappointing has been his determination to use the industry as a football to be kicked around between himself and the fisheries minister in Westminster. In my view it is in the best interests of the industry to have ministers who will work together to put our case in Brussels.”
The SNP’s John Mowat is having none of that, however. “The SNP have had a strong record on supporting the fishing from Winnie Ewing and now Ian Hudghton as SNP MEPs and members of the fisheries committees, SNP MPs and MSPs. Richard Lochhead, Scottish fisheries minister, has developed a good relationship with Ireland and a number of northern European EU nations and also the retiring UK Labour minister. He has mostly been able to accompany the UK delegation at fisheries negotiations. However, this is not enough as Scotland needs to have representation, as of right at these meetings.”
He said the SNP was in favour of much greater local control of fishing.
Labour candidate Mark Cooper said: “The reform of the CFP in the next parliament will have a direct impact on the lives of people in Shetland. That is why my first priority will be to make sure that reforming the CFP is done in a way that is best for fisherman in Shetland “Labour has delivered for fisherman by securing a budget for the fishing fleet to adapt to new technologies and allow fishing to be sustainable. Labour have also brought the fishing industry and government into a closer relationship this has allowed UK fisherman to have stronger voice.
“I would work with fisherman and scientists because it should be them who manage fishing and not the politicians in Brussels. I will also work to end the policy of discards. The CFP must also be linked to environmental progress because fishing must be sustainable in the long term so it should ensure the health of the seas also.”
Conservative Frank Nairn, who has been in Whalsay speaking to folk in the fishing industry there, said there was a real feling that they were being ignored by politicians in Brussels, Westminster and Edinburgh.
“Tackling the issues on behalf of my constituents would be a top priority. I pledge to be a strong voice for fishermen. The fishing industry is vital to this constituency. I am fully aware that, if and when elected, I will be on a steep learning curve to get to grips with the detail of the CFP. It is one of the most complex Euro subjects with a lot of jargon and mystery deliberately perpetuated hindering reform. I believe the fishing community itself is confused and frustrated by the lack of clarity. This is not a good situation and needs to be tackled.”
Top of the list of demands made in Brussels this week by Scottish fisheries minister Richard Lochhead, MEPs and industry leaders was a rapid return to Scotland of decision-making powers, giving the country the necessary autonomy to balance the economic, social and conservation tensions and drastically reduce the dumping of fish.
The event was co-hosted by the vice-chairman of the European Parliament fisheries committee, Scottish Tory MEP Struan Stevenson, and his fellow SNP MEP Ian Hudghton.
Mr Lochhead said: “Working in partnership with the industry and environmental groups we need to deliver real and lasting change across Europe, allowing fishermen to land and earn more, whilst catching and discarding less. We cannot deliver this if the framework is broken.
“Our guiding principle remains that decision making must be returned to Scotland where it belongs. However we cannot afford to wait for 2013 for radical changes – we need them now – before it’s too late for our fishermen and fish stocks.
“Discards are widely regarded by skippers, environmental experts and scientists as one of the current model’s biggest flaws. Existing European regulations mean that fishermen currently have little choice but to throw away much of the fish they catch – that is utterly ridiculous.”