By Nick Underdown, campaigns manager, Open Seas

FISHING is now centre stage in Scotland’s General Election campaign. Just last week First Minister’s Questions was dominated by the Tories and the SNP wrestling on an open deck about who best represents the fishing industry. Only days before, an SNP MP, ostensibly racing to save her own seat, had signed a pledge which appeared to contradict Government policy.

Following such events you might expect the Scottish Government Fisheries Secretary, Fergus Ewing, to deliver clarity. Unfortunately, he added to the confusion last week by evading questions on a key manifesto pledge, apparently distancing himself from reform of outdated and dysfunctional inshore fisheries legislation.

Addressing the Scottish Inshore Fisheries Conference in Inverness, he largely overlooked the needs of the inshore fleet, currently beleaguered by conflict, a history of declining fish stocks, poorly distributed access to fish quotas and the continued damage to our inshore seabed.

These issues have been brought into stark relief with Brexit, but also by a more recent event in a West Coast sea loch. Just days before the conference, a group of divers documented the extensive damage inflicted on a large biogenic reef in Loch Carron caused by a Scottish vessel dredging for king scallops. The footage of broken shells, torn reef and a devastated seabed has caused public outcry and calls for change.

It exemplified a pressing problem at the heart of fisheries management, namely that damaging practices, such as scallop dredging, are still legal in areas fundamental to the functioning of our marine ecosystem. Reefs like those in Loch Carron are scallop “spat factories”, hugely productive in growing young scallops. Other diverse, undamaged, seabed habitats increase the productivity of cod, haddock and whiting and bring in fish like mackerel. And yet dredging these areas of fragile reef is perfectly legal and sadly still common. Many fishermen, creelers and divers – and indeed other scallop dredgers – have deplored the Loch Carron incident. Most see it as chronic resource mismanagement. The minister hardly mentioned it.

Amidst the chaos of the snap General Election, the SNP is being tied in knots by lobbying groups whose key aim is to stop European vessels from fishing in offshore Scottish waters and protect the current unbalanced ownership of fishing “quotas”. By exploiting this hard Brexit agenda, they are drawing the Scottish Government away from its core mission, to make fairer use of public resources for society’s benefit. The voices of our inshore fleet –the vast majority of Scottish fishermen – are rarely heard.

The SNP appears to be so worried about losing a seat in the north-east of Scotland (where the chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation is understood to have been asked to stand for the Tories, and declined), that the minister is flip-flopping around with its marine policy. Meanwhile discontent grows around our shores. A recent survey of UK fishermen found 84 per cent regard the current allocation of resources as being unfairly spread across the UK fleet. Those attending last week’s fisheries conference heard how the inshore fleet has been “systematically stripped of its entitlement and access” to fish coastal waters, forced instead into marine “monocultures”. Many Scottish inshore fishermen lament the brutal consolidation of the fleet and want access back to a more diverse inshore fishery.

Europe was on the verge of sorting out the inequities of resource management by granting preferential access to boats that delivered better social and environmental value. But that ship has sailed and many of the solutions are now in devolved hands. The Brexit agenda suits the suits, but the Scottish Government still has full control over our inshore waters (0-6 nautical miles).

The SNP’s manifesto pledge for inshore reform could overhaul the crippled condition of our inshore fisheries. With the right management in place, Scotland’s inshore recovery would commence and our seafood could become a source of greater national pride. The SNP leadership needs to resolve the current confusion and more boldly back reform for the long-term interests of Scotland’s inshore fisheries. It could deliver a “sustainable six”, allowing productive and sustainable fishing to be promoted in our coastal seas out to six miles from shore. The result would be sustainable Scottish seafood.

All politicians must listen to the wider voice of rural Scotland: not just the owners of industry, but the many communities in places like Loch Carron that have struggled for decades in the long shadow of depleted inshore fisheries. The lifeblood of our wider rural economy, the title of the minister’s portfolio, depends on it.