15th September 2015

The following article, By Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, was published in The Scotsman newspaper on 15 September 2015.

At first glance fishing may seem a rather simple business; you catch your fish or shellfish in a trawl or creel, which are managed by quotas or other limitations to keep landings to a sustainable level. Job done.

But if only that were the case! In the real world fishing is one of the most complex operations around, not least because of the challenging environment our fishermen work in. Indeed, fish populations are subject to a whole range of natural influences that can affect spawning success and survival.

This is why research and improving our knowledge of our fisheries and marine ecosystems is so important.  Scottish fishermen have been at the forefront of contributing to such research and nowadays our fishermen play a crucial role in helping scientists in fish stock assessments and detecting population trends.

Similarly, Scotland’s fishermen are playing a leading role in supporting Fisheries Innovation Scotland, a relatively new organisation dedicated to developing an on-going programme of research and knowledge exchange on the management of Scotland’s fisheries.

One key area of research in recent years has been the development of new and selective trawls by fishermen to reduce unwanted bycatches. This has been a spectacular success and has played its part in ensuring the remarkable recovery of cod and other stocks in the north-east Atlantic.

With the ban on discarding demersal fish due to be phased in from 1 January 2016, we have now taken such work a step further by securing advance funding from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) and Marine Scotland to develop additional new and innovative fishing gear to reduce discards.  The funding will facilitate a partnership involving ourselves, Marine Scotland, Seafish, Scottish Industry Discards Initiative, net-makers and fishermen.

The first phase of the project will run from now until the end of 2015 and will sea-trial new designs of nets with the results being disseminated throughout the fleet.  It is anticipated that a further phase of the project will be in place from January 2016 onwards.

It is a fine example of collaboration and working in partnership with others to deliver effective conservation whilst maintaining a viable fishing industry. Of course, when such cooperation doesn’t happen, then bad decision-making is the inevitable result. A classic example is the Scottish Government’s recently announcement management measures for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) on the West coast of Scotland.

Firstly, let us get one thing straight – we totally support the concept of MPAs, for without healthy seas there can be no healthy fishing industry.  Just as how nature reserves can play an essential conservation role on land, then so too can MPAs meet the same fulfilments at sea. We fully get that.

So, it was with this in mind that we cooperated enthusiastically in the long consultation process for the designation and the management arrangements for MPAs. Over a four-year period of collaboration between government and stakeholders, we agreed upon guidelines on features and habitats to be protected and how areas would be selected.

A protracted programme of workshops all around the coasts, with lots of compromise and sacrifice, worked out the final detail including recommendations on the management measures that would meet the marine protection objectives whilst at the same time ensure the continuation of sustainable fishing.  And all this was endorsed by the government’s statutory nature adviser, Scottish Natural Heritage.

So, it therefore came as a huge shock when the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Richard Lochhead, made his announcement on the first tranche of MPAs.  Four of them to our astonishment contained measures much more constricting than those discussed and consulted upon, and which would do real economic damage to our precious coastal fishing communities.

We have had many small-scale West coast fishermen come to us in complete dismay over the arrangements, which will no longer make their fishing activities viable and may force them to fish in stormier offshore areas. And what is worse is that all this stress being wreaked upon our fishing families is totally needless because sensible and practical arrangements had already been seemingly agreed upon.

It was as if the consultation had never happened at all. It is socio-economic vandalism – a breach of trust and an utter failure of governance. However, all is not lost, for just recently we have seen democracy move into action, with the Rural Affairs Committee of the Scottish Parliament asking for the legislation to be delayed while it takes further evidence. Hopefully, this will throw a lifeline to our hardworking fishermen.