Scottish Fishing Communities Threat
As EU ministers meet in Brussels to discuss quota cuts, Herald writers look at the state of the Scottish industry
David Thomson & Alastair McIntosh
First published in The Herald, Glasgow, as part of a feature page on the Scottish sea fishing industry on 17-12-98, p. 14. This article is reprinted in my essay collection, Healing Nationhood (Curlew, 2000).
Two other articles also written with David Thomson in 1998 unpack this general piece in more technical detail for the commercial marine fishing industry press. Please see:
Like the proverbial cod, something has
rotted from the head down in Britain's fishing
industry. The bottom-line evidence is decay of Scotland's once-thriving fishing
Robbed over the past three decades of
significant portions of their most basic resource, they are also diminished in
what Gaelic poet, Derick Thomson, called their "laugher like a sprinkling
of salt" and "a sprinkling of pride on their hearts".
What has happened is that centralised
government and big-business control have sacrificed social and environmental
considerations at the at the altar of narrowly conceived monetary objectives.
The Government's latest scheme is a
case in point. It permits white fish landings at only 19 designated ports.
Arbroath is excluded from the list so its famous haddock "smokie"
Such measures reduce once self-reliant
communities to dependency cultures. These are forced to take their bearings,
cap-in-hand, from London and Brussels - the metropolitan centres where, through
quota proceeds and corporate taxation, the benefits of resource colonisation end
In consequence, the sons and daughters
of one of the richest tributaries of Scottish culture get scattered to the four
winds. Those left at home are made to feel bad about becoming junkies, if they
are lucky, only to regional aid.
The root of the problem is fishing
profits have become concentrated in the hands of a very few. Fleet owners have
been forced to modernise, or get squeezed out by a Common Fisheries Policy that
favours "survival of the fittest" rather than "survival of the
So it is that some 3 dozen millionaires
scoop-up Scotland's entire catch of herring and mackerel. Indeed, just 45
pelagic ships with 450 crew now monopolise an erstwhile community resource
which, at the end of World War II, supported over 1,000 boats, 10,000 crew and
an even greater workforce on shore.
Almost gone is the dignity of reverence
that caused a previous generation of fishers, mindful of the 104th Psalm, to
give their boats names like "Providence".
If the 19th century saw Clearances from
the land, the 20th has nailed the coffin lid to maritime communities. It has
done so with three nails. Each would have been harmless, even benign, on its
own. But like tides, wind and swell compounded, their cocktail has proven
Europe, obviously, was the first nail.
But it is easy to duck domestic responsibility by making Brussels the scapegoat.
When Ted Heath negotiated Britain's
entry to the Common Market in 1970, he made fisheries the dowry. At that time,
most community-based family-run boats had little political voice or lobbying
power. Those which were well organised - the distant-water corporately-owned
trawlers - were quite happy to see Britain's resource gambled with because they
had their eyes on greater horizons.
As their industry had the upper hand in
technology and capital, they reckoned on stealing the march when Norway
compromised its fisheries' sovereignty on entering the Common Market.
However, Norway's fishing communities
voted against Europe. Meanwhile, Iceland's claims were ratified in the
International Court. And those same companies which had backed the pawning of
Britain's fisheries nosedived, dragging down with them Grimsby and Hull.
Ted Heath had actually wielded a double
hammer-blow to traditional fishing communities. In presuming to treat fish as a
national and European resource, centrally controlled, he also unwittingly
undermined fishermen's sense of being responsible for their own patch. This
opened up that "tragedy of the commons" which results whenever
traditional constraints and practices are replaced with a beggar-my-neighbour
Law-abiding fishers thereby found
themselves being criminalised as they struggled to compete with continental
fleets and out-of-touch regulations. Most notorious of these is the enforced
dumping of unwanted accidental by-catches of species that exceed quotas.
As the skipper of MFV Amoria wrote in
last week's Fishing News, "I have just returned from yet another fishing
trip where we were forced to dump 200 boxes of coley and 100 boxes of haddock -
value up to £18,000 - and I am absolutely disgusted with this total waste of
The second nail in the coffin of
community-based fishing was new technology. It facilitated a radical increase in
range, catching efficiency and destructive side-effects. Handed-down skills,
social understanding and an innate respect for how the ocean and seabed was
treated got ousted by a youthful determination to plunder as much as possible
before competing foreign vessels did likewise.
All this led inevitably to the third
nail - capital intensification. Fishing as an intensive industry rather than an
integrated way of life became a magnet for investors with more interest in quota
transactions than community cohesion and holistic resource management.
In these ways, the industry's conquest
by globalisation was concluded. "Harvest" became "bounty".
Is it possible, then, for Scotland's fish and fishing cultures be restored?
We believe that it is, but only if
vibrant, sustainable and self-reliant coastal communities become the main policy
objective. For this fisheries management should aim to optimalise economic and
community linkages, multipliers and resource conservation.
An economic "linkage" is when
one activity integrates with another. Such links then enhance
"multiplier" effects. For example, landing haddock at Arbroath links
to processing "smokies", which multiplies activity on the railways, in
engineering workshops, post-offices, schools, churches and pubs. Fillet the fish
out and much else is rendered spineless.
What Scottish fisheries most need is
greater "subsidiarity" - control to regional bodies representing local
communities. These would have a greater incentive to regulate fishing methods in
accordance with sustainable community and conservation principles.
An example of a country much smaller
than Scotland achieving huge success is Namibia in southern Africa. This 1.5
million-person-state was under enormous pressure to continue allowing access to
the EU fleet. But Namibia stood its ground, claimed control of its own 200 mile
limit, and encouraged indigenous black and coloured business. It now has one of
the most productive and best managed fisheries in the world, overtaking mining
as its largest industrial employer.
According to a recent Scottish Office
discussion document, in the Scottish Parliament "inshore fisheries policy
is likely to be a key element of the devolved powers". And a 1997 report of
the Scottish Secretary's Advisory Group on Sustainable Development contains
exemplary proposals for fishing.
It emphasises need for a "change
of culture" towards "sustainable practices" including,
"enhancing a sense of ownership by giving communities special access and
responsibility for their local fishing resource" and "reform of the
Common Fisheries Policy for regional and local variations in the allocations of
rights to fish."
Holyrood must add teeth to such vision.
In so doing, it might look to new precedents in agriculture. The European
Council in its November 1997 refocusing of the Common Agricultural Policy
advocated environmental friendliness, sustainability, and the enhancement of the
vitality of rural life.
If North Sea stocks alone could be
restored to 1970 levels, fish catches could potentially get close to double the
For such reasons, reform or replacement
of the Common Fisheries Policy could benefit all Europe. Working with
Westminster, Scotland's new parliament should set sail on a turned tide.
St Andrew's House must cast our net upon the waters. A "miraculous catch" awaits.
McIntosh is a fellow of Edinburgh's Centre for Human Ecology. David Thomson is a
former staff member of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United
Nations and has served in over 50 countries.
Internet Users Please Note:
The above material and any endnotes
that follow is original text as submitted to the publication stated beneath the
title. As the editing process means that some parts may have been cut, altered
or corrected after it left my hands, or I might have made minor subsequent
specify in citation “internet version from www.AlastairMcIntosh.com”
as well as citing the place of first publication. Note that author particulars,
including contact address(es) and organisational affiliations may have changed
since first publication.
material is © Alastair McIntosh and/or first publishers. However (and without
prejudice to any legal rights of the original or subsequent publishers), I give
my permission for it to be freely copied for non-commercial educational purposes
provided that due acknowledgement is given. Please advise of any uses that might
particularly interest me. For commercial enquires, please contact original
publishers and/or email me, mail@AlastairMcIntosh.com.
Thanks, folks, and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!
RETURN to any sub-index from which you approached this page, click BACK
on your web browser. To return to my homepage, click www.AlastairMcIntosh.com.