David Stewart

Sea Fisheries and End-Year Negotiations

Speech by David in the Scottish Parliament debate

7 December 2016


This is an important debate that has mostly been constructive, with well-informed and insightful contributions from members across the chamber.

As a sign that we concur with cross-party working on this important issue, Labour will support the Government motion and the other two amendments at decision time.

As we have heard, 12 December is the date for the annual EU quota negotiations in Brussels.

The livelihoods of our fishermen are, of course, dependent on the outcomes of the talks.

The 28 fishing ministers of the EU states will be involved in frenetic talks, compromises and amendments, in late-night, bleary-eyed sessions in Brussels.

Whether that imperfect system is the best way of managing and sustaining our fisheries is debatable—that was a point made by Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, in Tuesday’s Scotsman; and like other members, I welcome Mr Armstrong and his colleagues to the public gallery this afternoon—but no one can argue that there is an easy path to balancing technical and scientific advice with the socioeconomic impact on our fishing communities.

Dr Steven Mackinson, the chief scientific officer of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association, is teaming up with scientists and fishermen to work out the size of fish stocks, using among other tools fishing vessels’ echo sounders to measure fish abundance.

He said that that approach “helps foster mutual respect between fishermen and scientists, which can only bode well for the future management of our precious fisheries in the 21st century.”

This is a very important debate, given that, as we have heard, Scotland is a key player among Europe’s fishing nations and accounts for around two thirds of the total fish caught in the UK.

Given the fact, too, that nearly 5,000 fishermen are employed on Scottish-based vessels, fishing is a key economic resource for Scotland generally and for the Highlands and Islands and the north-east specifically.

The big picture is of a world with a global food shortage, while on our own doorstep we have a fresh, affordable and varied food stock for both domestic and—what is crucial—European markets.

Richard Lochhead, who is in the chamber, said in February this year that enough fish were dumped in the North Sea last year to feed Macedonia, Slovenia or Botswana, and we all know that thousands—indeed, millions—are starving in the developing world.

At the local level, it is local communities and hardworking fishermen who provide the backbone of the fishing industry. As a long-time representative of the Highlands and Islands, I am well aware of the distinctive traditions, customs and close-knit communities that the pursuit of fishing has created along the coasts of Scotland.

Although the majority of the fishing industry now operates from major harbours with large, efficient fleets, we should not forget about the small coastal communities whose residents have lived with the salt of the sea in their blood for generations.

As I said, this has been a good debate.

My colleague Fergus Ewing made a very insightful speech but, to my shock, said that he was being a radical.

I have known Mr Ewing for many years and I could describe him in lots of ways, but the word “radical” would not jump into my mind as one to describe him.

However, I believe that he will be radical tonight and support Labour’s amendment at decision time—I can only live in hope.

Mr Ewing made some very useful points in his speech, in particular about the key issue of having to turn good scientific advice into quotas.

Peter Chapman spoke very well in a thoughtful speech and highlighted the fact that Peterhead and Fraserburgh are crucial harbours.

He also made a very interesting point about fishermen moving to more sustainable fishing methods.

Irrespective of our views on Brexit, for the future, innovation is king—I totally agree with Mr Chapman on that point.

My colleague Rhoda Grant made the interesting point that we should not forget that we are still in the EU and have not yet implemented article 50, and that we will be debating fishing for many years to come, although perhaps under different models.

She mentioned the key issue, which is summed up in our amendment, of marine protection vessels and the halving of the Marine Scotland £5,000 retention bonus for crews.

As a good trade unionist and supporter of labour—I use that term in its widest sense—I believe that we should support those crews.

I ask colleagues across the chamber to consider supporting them too.

Tavish Scott is a member with tremendous experience in the area of fishing over many years.

He made strong criticisms in relation to discards, which I agree with.

However, I think that his key point was about the fishing sector having stability and the ability to plan for the future.

I apologise to other members whose speeches I am unable to mention, but I am conscious of the time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Excuse my interrupting, but you can have a little more time if you would like to, Mr Stewart.


David Stewart: Thank you, Presiding Officer. In that case, I will use the 40-minute speech that I have ready for this occasion. [Laughter.]

We could argue that Brexit is the ghost at the feast in this debate, although, alas, I do not have time to discuss it in detail.

One of the founding principles of the common fisheries policy was equal access to waters.

 As the lawyer Andrew Oliver—whom I think Tavish Scott quoted— explained in Fishing News in July this year, “As a result” of Brexit, “the UK will fall back upon its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”.

As members will be aware, that international convention, which is unrelated to EU membership, defines nations’ responsibilities in their use of the world’s oceans and gives us guidelines for the management of marine resources.

It is absolutely crucial for the Scottish fishing industry to have full access to the European maritime and fisheries fund.

As the cabinet secretary will be aware, the total budget was around €107 million.

The chancellor said on 13 August “I am confirming that Structural and Investment Fund projects signed before the Autumn Statement and Horizon Research funding granted before we leave the EU will be guaranteed by the Treasury after we leave.”

However, Marine Scotland, which is Scotland’s lead agency for fisheries has set an early “final spend” date for EMFF projects.

I ask the cabinet secretary to confirm when he winds up whether that is still in place, whether it has been conveyed to fishermen and whether he is confident that we will be able to spend the entire budget, which in my view is vital for the industry.

In Scotland, our fishing communities often exist in a fragile balance, and both onshore and offshore livelihoods are at stake.

That requires that any significant changes be viewed with a careful and critical eye.

In considering the future of the industry, we know that sustainable development of fisheries is beneficial environmentally, socially and economically, but we must still proceed with caution.

Our fishermen are some of the most resilient workers in Scotland.

Whether the adversity that they face stems from the high seas or from EU regulations, Scottish fishermen will rise to the challenge.