Sea Fisheries and End - Year Negotiations
7 December 2017
A number of members have taken the opportunity to look backwards as well as forward, particularly Tavish Scott.
I agree with those who said that this year’s fisheries council will be historic, but I am not sure that anybody can say today in what way.
All that is certain about Britain's future relationship with the EU is that it remains shrouded in a fog of uncertainty, which has only got denser and darker over the course of this week. What that means for the fisheries sector, and for the rest of our economy, is that we are on a journey to a destination as yet unknown.
We now understand that the UK Government has not seen fit to look into the impact of leaving the single market and customs union on any part of the economy, which is bad news for our fish processors and exporters, just as much as it is for everybody else.
We also know that sailing on the sea of opportunity charted by the SFF will not be straightforward, even once the wider issues around Brexit have been settled.
The debate has been useful in laying out the areas that will need to be addressed next year and in 2019, and perhaps for a number of years after that.
We will support the Government’s motion and Tavish Scott’s amendment, with which we entirely agree.
The Conservative Party amendment, I fear, remains almost as much of a mystery as Mrs May’s Brexit strategy.
One thing that we have all surely learned is not to assume that the Conservatives’ purpose is what it seems, so in the absence of greater clarity from Mr Cameron, we will not be able to support Mr Chapman’s amendment.
Reducing the impact of the landing obligation and choke species on the Scottish fleet will be important, whatever happens with Brexit.
As Rhoda Grant said, we agree with the cabinet secretary that the discussions must be driven by the need to find a solution that protects both the future sustainability of fish stocks and the commercial sustainability of the fisheries sector.
Indeed, seeking that balance should be the guiding light for everything that we seek to do.
A large proportion of the large-scale commercial fishing fleet in the north-east and Shetland understands that forward planning for both the whitefish and pelagic sectors has to continue to be science based and commercially aware, while the often smaller-scale fishing sector on the west coast and in the Hebrides has recognised the need for a policy to protect some fragile marine environments, balanced with the need to protect some fragile coastal communities.
Around our coast, the same essential balance will be required after March 2019 as is required right now, and the views and experience of the catching sector, fishing communities, fish farmers and fish processors must all be taken into account as well as the expertise of those who are focused on protecting the marine environment.
We must also continue to support decisions that are based on evidence from scientists in this country and elsewhere.
It would be a mistake to assume that the hard work in matching effort and capacity to biomass and sustainability is all behind us.
For those who have left the industry in the past 10 years, it would add insult to injury if stocks were to fall below sustainable levels, despite the reductions that have been made in the size of the fleet.
I am glad that we have also heard today about the issues facing the processing sector.
Like Stewart Stevenson, I was involved in the Fraserburgh task force that was set up after hundreds of jobs were lost at Young’s Seafood in 2015.
The other day, I was pleased to hear of new developments on one of the company’s former sites in the town, which Mr Stevenson mentioned.
As well as the impact on the local economy of the loss of so many jobs, one of the striking things about the fish processing workforce in Fraserburgh was just how international it had become.
Many of those who lost their jobs were from the Baltic states, Poland or Portugal, and many of those workers were mobile enough to find jobs quickly in other towns or even in other countries.
There is, however, no doubt that the seafood sector will be hard hit by the loss of free access to EU labour.
Indeed, many who work on fishing vessels are not only from outwith the UK but from outwith the EU.
The response of the seafood sector might involve more technology and fewer workers.
That is a distinct possibility and threat.
Such a response would protect the interests of those businesses at the expense of jobs in coastal communities.
The loss of free access to EU markets is also a risk for the sector.
Glib assumptions that other markets will open up instead will not be of much comfort if the orders dry up.
The SFF is right to want to talk about what lies ahead in the post-Brexit world.
All parts of the wider industry will be affected by whatever deal is done—or not done—in the next few weeks and months.
I said that the UK Government appears to have done little work on economic impacts, and that is particularly worrying for a sector such as fisheries.
It is surprising that not even a sector such as fisheries, in which, as a number of members have said, there was support for leaving the European Union, has found the United Kingdom Government taking seriously what the economic impact—whether it is the downside or the upside—might be of whatever happens next.
That is a sobering thought and a source of real concern.
Older fishermen in north-east ports still talk bitterly about having been sold out at the time of the initial negotiations on joining the European Community back in 1973.
The problem then was that access to fishing grounds was a tradable commodity when it came to seeking the best possible deal for Britain on joining Europe.
Many fishermen are worried now that access to fishing grounds might still be a tradable commodity when it comes to seeking the best possible deal for leaving Europe.
They are right to be nervous at the increasing signs that UK ministers have no coherent plan or strategy for the shape of our possible post-Brexit relationships—that lack of a clear strategy applies to fisheries as it applies elsewhere—and at the apparent willingness of ministers to offer access to UK fishing grounds as an early negotiating gambit with other members of the EU.
I wish Mr Ewing every success in delivering a fair deal for Scottish fisheries in Brussels in the next few days.
We also need to see a fair deal for all our communities in the Brexit negotiations in the weeks that lie ahead.