Early in his political career former councillor JONATHAN WILLS stood as a Labour Party candidate. The failings of the Common Fisheries Policy were at the heart of his campaign. More than 40 years later he feels just as passionately about fisheries management but argues that the SNP has the greatest chance of securing the best deal for Shetland’s, and Scotland’s, fishing fleet.
Does history teach us anything? In the two general elections of 1974, there was a Labour candidate in Orkney and Shetland who campaigned hard against remaining in the Common Market on Tory terms, because of what the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) would do to the isles’ fishing fleet. I lost my deposit and the SNP did very well in Whalsay.
In the past 43 years some of my fears about the CFP have come to pass and others have not: foreign fleets have indeed taken more of “our” fish; and the Shetland white fish trawl fleet is much smaller than it once was; this caused anger and lingering resentments which are easy to understand.
On the other hand, wasteful industrial fishing has largely ceased; boats, piers and fish markets are vastly better equipped; fish landings have gone up, as have prices; the remaining trawlers are mostly prospering; and fish stocks are recovering dramatically after those controversial decommissioning and days-at-sea regulations reduced the pressure on them.
In my last four years as a councillor I worked with the Shetland Fishermen’s Association and my council colleagues from Orkney and the Western Isles to persuade the European Commission that the “no discards” policy in its present form would be ruinous for trawlers in mixed fisheries like ours. An independent report by the Seafish Industry Authority confirmed this grim assessment.
In December last year we met the fisheries commissioner in Brussels and it seemed that he and his officials now understood the problem. They asked us for details of how to fix it, which we provided. So much for the famed inflexibility of Brussels rules and regulations.
But now all that work seems to have been wasted, or is at least on hold, because, not surprisingly, attitudes in Brussels have hardened in the face of Theresa May’s insulting and aggressive behaviour.
What was true for Harold Wilson’s renegotiation with the EEC in 1974-75 is also true for Mrs May today: no government in London is going to put the interests of Scotland’s fishing industry, let alone Orkney and Shetland’s, before the interests of the British economy as a whole. We are just too small, in the bigger picture.
So, when our local fishermen mostly welcomed the Brexiteers’ prospectus of kicking the foreigners out and voted “Leave” last June, I was not surprised but it did seem to me that they were being conned.
We are not going to get exclusive use of British waters for British vessels and here’s why: many EU boats own catch quota here. Some of it they gained through historic rights, some they bought from willing UK sellers. The owners of this quota have legal title.
If you’re going to take that quota away from them you may have to end the current quota system and start a new one.
People, including banks, often assume that quotas are assets that can be bought and sold like other property. But in fact quotas are only permits issued by governments, and they can be withdrawn or altered at will. I’m not sure whether Shetland fishermen, or Shetland Islands Council which owns a lot of quota that it rents to young skippers and crews, would be happy seeing all their quota recalled and re-allocated. Their auditors would certainly have some questions about the true value of their assets.
There will always be some foreign vessels fishing in our waters. This is not something that started with the EU. Some nations have fished here, by international agreement, for hundreds of years.
The Dutch, for example, were in the waters around the Northern Isles in the 17th century, when they fished under the “land kenning” rule which said it was all right as long as they stayed just out of sight of land. The Danes have similar claims under international law.
If a British or a Scottish Government tried to ban all stranger boats it would very soon find itself at the International Court in The Hague. There are many international agreements about the use of the sea. It’s not all about EU.
If, as seems unavoidable, Scotland is dragged out of the EU by the Tories and/or Labour in Westminster, we will of course be out of the Common Fisheries Policy. If Scotland then remains in the UK, there is no guarantee of a better deal for fishing from a Tory or Labour administration. History tells us that much.
On the other hand, if Scotland becomes independent and rejoins Europe, there is an opportunity for an entirely new deal, protecting some foreign fishing rights but greatly strengthening our local fleet and the many shoreside enterprises that depend on it.
As a first step on our way back into Europe, Scotland may well join Norway in the European Economic Area (EEA), which would certainly be of benefit to our fishermen because of access to the European single market and the chance to have local preference on our fishing grounds. If we then proceeded to full membership of the EU, there would have to be a negotiation, this time with Scotland’s representatives sitting at the bargaining table, not watching from the sidelines as mere observers.
A major part of those talks would be about the CFP, which the SNP has consistently opposed since 1973 and would obviously wish to reform before signing up as a full member of the EU.We are not the only nation proposing reform.
So it seems to me the choice is clear: either trust our fortunes to discredited and unreliable politicians of the two main UK parties or vote for a party with a track record of supporting the fishing industry – and with a leadership that will be firm but friendly with Europe.
It took me a while, I admit, to come round to this view and I don’t expect others to be converted in a flash. I merely recommend a vote for Miriam Brett as our best bet for the future of fisheries in the Northern Isles.