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 Scottish Fishing Communities Threat


  Tide Must Turn for Fishing


As EU ministers meet in Brussels to discuss quota cuts, Herald writers look at the state of the Scottish industry


by 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:


"Lessons from Abroad" in Fishing Monthly - on how other countries manage their coastal fisheries.


"Monetarism is Killing Communities" in Fishing News - on how "monetarist" policies are replacing fishing communities with oligarchy.





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 communities.


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" risks extinction.


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 up.


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 most fitting".


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 treacherous.


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 free-for-all.


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 resources."


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 present figures.


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.


Alastair 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.



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