With political instability and concerns about the terms of Britain leaving the EU, Scotland’s fishermen are anxious to ensure they are given the right to a fair share of the catch, writes Anthony Harrington

While the country as a whole has been deeply divided over the merits of Brexit, the fishing community, which has felt extremely hard done by as far as Brussels is concerned, has long been close to unanimous in believing that departing the EU would be the vastly better option for the industry.

As John Smith, Executive Manager at Shetland Council’s Marine Services, notes, the sector has generally dubbed Brexit "a sea of opportunity" for the Scottish fishing industry. However, no one is in any doubt that the road ahead will be fraught with challenges.

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"We are very actively looking to play our part in helping to shape thinking around what needs to be done," he says.

Smith says that the biggest fear the Scottish fishing sector has is that UK politicians might end up trading away the rights and wishes of the sector as a bargaining chip to secure trade deals for other sectors closer to their hearts.

"The UK has a very disappointing track record when it comes to negotiating rights for the sector. Our entry to the EU was on terms that were hugely distressing to the industry as a whole and we are rightly concerned to see that our exit from the EU is not a similar debacle," he observes.

At present, with Brexit itself still at least marginally uncertain – at the time of writing Germany had just gone public saying that Brexit "should be avoided" – the best that the fishing industry can do is examine potential scenarios.

The best-case scenario for the industry, Smith notes, would see a proper transfer of sovereignty over the UK’s fishing industry, coupled with proper agreements forged with other
nations over the prudent management of fish stocks.

"We definitely need a "good management" regime that is evidence based and crafted from the bottom up, taking into account fishermen’s experience of fish stocks. These are clearly showing very good levels of recovery and we need a regime that recognises this. At the same time, everyone in the sector wants to see sustainable fishing that will ensure that the industry is in good shape to pass on down the generations," he comments.

High on the agenda would be a rebalancing of regional catches. At present, Smith points out, around £350 million worth of fish is taken from coastal waters around Shetland each year, with the Shetland fishing community landing only around 25 per cent of that sum.

"We would definitely want to see a proper balancing of outcomes here, so that local fishermen were given the right to fish for a fair share of the annual catch," Smith said. "There is definitely an opportunity here for coastal and island communities to achieve more benefit from the marine resources that are all around us,"
he adds.

Far and away the worst-case scenario, Smith says, would be one where the fishing industry ends up seeing some or all of its rights traded away to secure other deals. "The worst outcome would be that the CAP gets replicated and we get no additional fishing capacity while at the same time a lot more of our fish stocks are allowed to be taken by boats from other countries. If we give away our rights in a trade deal then find that our markets are diminished through tariffs and other blockages, that is really going to be very bad for us," he says.

However, Smith says that the sector remains cautiously optimistic and that everything remains to be played for. "Our access to those who may be involved in the decision making process is reasonable. The real difficulty at present, however, is identifying who, exactly, is likely to be involved in the final negotiations. Political instability in Westminster is not helping. If the people we are talking to end up not being the ones doing the final deal making with Brussels, then that poses a whole range of additional problems," he comments.

Ian Laidlaw, the chief executive of Peterhead Port, agrees. "At present there is very little clarity about how things will turn out. We are talking to politicians every chance we get and that seems to be going well, but the track record is not good as far as talks about fishing rights between the UK and the EU is concerned."

Both Laidlaw and Smith say that politics aside, the Scottish fishing industry is enjoying one of its better years. "Fish stocks seem to be in better shape now than they have been for many years, and that is very promising," Smith says.

The improvement in fish stocks has encouraged some fresh investment in boats, but no one is rushing to spend any supposed "Brexit dividend" just yet. "The community has elected to temper its optimism with realism. Nothing is guaranteed yet," Smith notes.

The slide in the value of the pound has been good for fish prices and export sales, but on the down side, it has been unhelpful for investment in new shipping tonnage, he points out. "Most of the newer fishing boats in the fleet have been built in Europe in recent years and that is now quite a bit more expensive," he comments.

"The guaranteed quotas and the day-to-day prices for fish seem to be holding up well, and if there was more clarity about the shape of the final outcome from Brexit there would definitely be a greater willingness to make the next step in investment but it will take time," he predicts.

Bringing new recruits into the industry takes time as they build up their skills. However, there are signs that some of those who left the fishing industry to work on supply vessels for the oil and gas sector are starting to return.

"There is a steep cost of entry in this industry and the acquisition of fishing rights is also a very costly business. We would hope to see that the arrangements with Brexit recognise this and that things are shaped to help expand the fleet, rather than all the benefits going to existing operators," he notes.

One encouraging recent development in Shetland has been a surge in white fish landings by small boats, under ten metres, specialising in close-to-shore fishing. "We have had about £400,000 landed up to the end of August, with probably around 20 very active boats and about 60 or so boats in total who combine some fishing with shell fish."

The quota limit on these vessels is very tight, at no more than a tonne a month per boat. "If that could be raised it would be very good and would help to create a new entry point for the industry," Smith says. At present levels the cash returns are too low for this to be more than a part-time job.

Smith points out that the Shetland Islands Council has now approved the demolition and rebuild of the island’s fish market. "We expect to complete this by 2020, which will give us a state-of-the-art fish market with double the capacity that we have at present."