FOR those who saw Brexit as a dire warning against ‘only-have-to-win-once’ referendums, fish lorries parading down Whitehall offer early evidence of consequences.

Creating borders and barriers to trade where they did not previously exist is never a good idea.

It now seems doubly unfortunate that the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, the industry’s most powerful voice, was such a keen supporter of Brexit. The five families who control half of Scotland’s fishing quota will not be unduly troubled.

In reality, the “Scottish fishing industry” is far from a single entity, as it tends to be presented, and the crisis faced by shellfish and other smaller exporters are of an entirely different order to any passing inconvenience to the wealthier sectors.

Such clarifications are necessary in order to strengthen the case of those who really are being harmed here and now. These businesses need solutions to survive and the focus should be on protecting them through the challenges they now face.

It was utterly irresponsible to press ahead with full Brexit implementation, purely to meet an artificial deadline. That also applies to other sectors of the UK economy but, for obvious reasons, exports of live shellfish were particularly vulnerable.

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Talking to affected businesses, I found the overwhelming interest is in sorting out practical problems – the logistics of merging consignments with proper paperwork, the compatibility of IT systems, the colour of ink, even – I am assured – different spellings of Latin names for particular species.

Everyone knew there would be more paperwork though nothing like what has actually emerged. Some aspects of it could have been foreseen but other elements only presented themselves through practical experience. They are capable of resolution but a little time was – and still is – needed. Is it too late to press a pause button, even now?

A smoked salmon producer, who has encountered the new bureaucracy, told me: “Both the UK and EU are going to have to radically streamline the process or else there will be huge economic costs. For all UK seafood exporting businesses it is a hugely worrying time”.

Even without Brexit, the continental market is at a low ebb with restaurants, hotels and retailers shut due to Covid. That makes it even more important for available orders to get through and to use this period to sort things out before something approaching normality returns.

That is where the urgent efforts of government, and the promised £23 million compensation, should be directed – to support companies facing real hardship, made an awful lot worse by the refusal to countenance even a short delay between conclusion of the Brexit deal and its full implementation.

There is another dimension to this story, however, beyond the immediate gloom. The fact remains that Brexit will give the Scottish Government far more control over our waters. Once the current furore subsides, crucial decisions affecting Scotland’s coastal communities will be taken much closer to home.

This is the aspect of fishing politics that tends to be avoided. Thundering about “the Scottish fishing industry” papers over the conflicts of interest that exist within it and have, historically, been far more damaging to many Scottish fishing communities than Westminster, the CFP and Brexit put together.

A taste of this was offered by a recent Court of Session judgement in which creel fishing interests on the West Coast challenged Scottish Ministers over their refusal to consider a pilot scheme around Skye which would have excluded trawling activity for six months of the year.

Ministers were accused by the creel interests of “cronyism” while Lady Poole, in her ruling, observed saltily: “It would be stultifying to good government if any opposition to a proposed measure was a bar to its adoption”.

As chance would have it, this test case – which may have far-reaching implications – involved a sea area slap in the middle of the constituency represented by Ian Blackford and Kate Forbes. Did they support their local creel fishermen? Or the trawling interests? Or criticism of Scottish Ministers? We will never know because they said nothing.

How much easier to be vociferous against external foes than adjudicate on conflicting interests within Scotland itself. That is a political luxury which Brexit, paradoxically, may make it more difficult to hide behind.

Like everything to do with fishing, ‘creels v trawlers’ is complicated and answers lie in balances rather than absolutes. One certainty is that future fishing policy within Scottish waters should not simply build on past structures which have driven decline in many coastal communities.

To take an example, West Coast fishermen have no share of the huge pelagic (herring and mackerel) quota in their own waters. Will that be perpetuated when such decisions are taken in Edinburgh rather than Brussels? Will the next few years be used to rebuild infrastructure and train a new generation of fishermen, to bring back prosperity to far more of Scotland’s coastal communities?

We must support the fishing businesses that really are facing huge challenges at present but also seize, rather than evade, the opportunity to build something fairer and more sustainable for the future.

A Scottish Government motivated by these objectives and conscious of its new powers might establish a Post-Brexit Commission on the Future Organisation of the Scottish Fishing Industry.

I fear it will do no such thing because the powerful interests – the cheerleaders for Brexit – would tell them to forget it. And that is where Scottish fishing’s political muscle continues to lie.

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