Brexit came under the spotlight at a lively meeting in the Shetland Museum last night, with farming and fishing leaders divided over the issue.
The event, attended by around 20 people, was one of a series country-wide arranged by the academic research institute the Centre on Constitutional Change.
Chaired by Professor of Politics at Aberdeen University, Michael Keating, the event brought to the fore differing attitudes to Brexit from two of Shetland’s major industries. Shetland Fishermen’s Association executive officer Simon Collins gave his point of view from the seafood sector, while local NFU chairman Jim Nicolson spoke for agriculture.
Mr Collins said the fishing sector had struggled with EU regulations, such as the “clumsy” discard ban, which threatened the sector’s very survival.
A total of 1,122 regulations concerning fisheries had been set under the Common Fisheries Policy, he said.
“Most sectors, for various reasons, are going to struggle. Fisheries is not quite like that. EU regulations were particularly heavy. It came to a point where it threatened to bankrupt half of our fleet.”
He said almost two thirds of fish coming out of UK waters were caught by non-UK boats, and highlighted an “irony” of the fleet being brought close to bankruptcy in what amounts to the most productive fisheries.
He added a positive element of leaving the EU would be that an exclusive economic zone would revert automatically to UK control, where no fishing vessel from anywhere else would be allowed to fish without UK say-so.
Mr Collins highlighted Faroe as an example of how trade deals could work. The Faroese trade over 40 per cent of its fish tariff free to the EU, he said, even though it is not a member state.
And he added he was unperturbed by the possible loss of grant funding.
Mr Nicolson highlighted comments he had made in a Landwise feature, in which he had predicted Hillary Clinton would win the US presidency campaign, and that, if Britain did vote to leave the EU, the country would see a soft, rather than a hard, Brexit.
“Any prediction I make, do take with a pinch of salt,” he told the audience.
Mr Nicolson said the industry needed to prepare for changes that lay ahead.
“We can’t bury our heads in the sand. We need to prepare for the future. There has to be preparation for the long-term.
“There’s no doubt that, following Brexit, there is going to be, very much, changes to the agricultural support we have enjoyed.”
He raised the possible threat of depopulation, if not in the isles, then at least in the Highlands, if adequate support is lost.
Mr Nicolson said it was “hugely important” that crofters and farmers remained productive, and harked back to “huge disappointment” last year when the bottom fell out of the light lambs market.
He was optimistic for the future, highlighting a recent NFU Hustings debate, where the six candidates commented that the Shetland meeting had, as far as they could see, the highest ratio of young people to older people, and also the highest ratio of women to men.
When the floor was opened, East Voe farmer Ronnie Eunson, of Uradale, said Shetland was a “microcosm” of the EU, where people farmed in “far-flung” places, where there were “no car factories, or other factories – but nation states see a point of continuing to support people who live there.”
While he recognised the opportunities seen by the fishing industry in leaving the EU, he said the CFP had benefited the industry.
“The Common Fisheries Policy has had a lot wrong with it. The Common Agricultural Policy has had a lot wrong with it. But there were more fish being landed, more profitably, in the last 10 years than what has been in my lifetime.”
Andrew Blackadder said the main problem lay not with the CFP, but with Westminster governments, which he described as “incompetent”
“The UK government has been totally incompetent on being able to negotiate anything in the EU,” he said.
“I’ve seen it first hand – the UK civil servants have been incapable of negotiating a deal, that’s why there have been problems with fishing and the CFP.”
Brian Nugent said fishing had nearly disappeared from south of the border.
“Because it has disappeared from England the British government doesn’t see it as an issue.
“Before Christmas there were MPs who said fishing could be used as a trade-off.”