As an island nation surrounded by fish-rich seas, fishing has always enjoyed a disproportionately large place in the national psyche, by comparison with its actual contribution to the UK’s economy. However, while fishing accounts for just 0.1% of UK GDP, it is hugely important to many island and coastal communities and its role in the national imagination is hard to overstate.

Moreover, the EU is not well loved by Scottish fisher folk, or even by the UK fishing community as a whole, which was almost to a person solidly in the “leave” camp. There is a very clear sense that UK fishing has suffered unjustifiably since we joined the EU and gave Brussels control of our fishing policies.

The UK’s coastal waters, which is to say the seas lying within our 200 nautical mile EEZ, (Exclusive Economic Zone) contain the vast percentage of the fish stocks that go to fill the quotas of both the UK and EU member nation fleets. If the UK resumes its status as an independent coastal nation and if it were to take a hard line on quotas for non-UK fishing boats, EU fishing fleets would find it next to impossible to fill the quotas allotted to them by the EU.


Director Of Infrastructure at Shetland Islands Council

That is one of the most salient facts the Scottish fishing community is focused on as it watches the Brexit debate unfold in Westminster. Brexit could put us back in control of our fishing policies, but not if Westminster politicians give up that control as a bargaining chip to secure trade advantages for other sectors of the British economy.

As John Smith, Director of Infrastructure at the Shetland Council’s Marine Services wryly observes: “The mushroom growers in the UK make a bigger contribution than fishing.” If politicians focus on that basic fact, and ignore the importance of fishing to local communities things could go very badly for the sector.

“This is a very anxious time for the fishing community. UK governments have form on this.

We saw them bargain away control of our seas when the UK joined the EU. That was done behind closed doors with very little public debate. Now, fortunately, fishing is front and centre in the debate, but there is no certainty that we won’t see very damaging concessions made to the EU yet again,” he says. One has to remember that EU fishing fleets also have a lot at stake here.

A report by the University of Aberdeen for the Scottish Fishermen's Federation (SFF), published in January last year, looked at what it called “the patial distribution of 17 selected commercial fish stocks of interest to Scotland,” using data mostly collected by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ie an independent source without a stake in the fishing game).


That report found unequivocally that Spanish, French, and other EU member states had next to zero chance of fulfilling their quotas for key fish stocks if the UK either shuts them out, or cuts their quotas significantly.

Trying to reach agreements with other nations to fish in their EEZ waters won’t work, because the fish just are not there. They are in our EEZ, and that, by and large, is how things stand. EU fishing fleet skippers know this very well, and they are pressuring their governments just as hard as they can, to use fishing quota agreements as a bargaining chip in any and all trade discussions with the UK over Brexit.

Very recently, in a speech to the Westminster Parliament, the Environmental  Secretary , Michael Gove, told members that the French President, Emmanuel Macron, was “speechless with rage” at the suggestion that under Brexit the UK would take backcontrol of fishing rights in its coastal waters. “The truth is that as an independent coastal state we will be able to decide who comes into our waters and on what terms,” Gove said.

He added that Macron found it utterly unacceptable that French fishing boats would only have access to UK waters if the UK so permitted, and on whatever terms the UK chose to impose.

Macron went on to say that he would veto any Brexit deal that did not safeguard the rights of French and EU fishing fleets.

As SFF chief executive Bertie Armstrong notes: “The UK industry’s priority has always been taking back control of decision making over who catches what, where and when in our waters.” The aim, he says, is to end “once and for all the grossly unfair situation where 60% of our stocks are taken by boats from other EU nations”.


Chief executive of The Scottish Fishermen's Federation, Bertie Armstrong.

The situation is even worse for the fishing sector in Shetland, according to John Smith, where, on average, just 25% of the catch landed in Shetland each year comes from the Scottish fishing community.

“Fish landed at Shetland, at Lerwickand Stornaway, amounts to around £350 million in value, with only a quarter of that coming from local boats because of the quota system,” he says.

The SSF wants to see the UK becoming a fully independent Coastal State, with its own seat at all the relevant international fisheries negotiations, from December 2020 onwards.

“Any linkage between access to markets and trade contravenes all international norms and practices and is simply unacceptable in principle.

“Therefore, we have asked the Prime Minister for assurances that the establishment of a new fisheries agreement as laid out in the Brexit arrangements does not imply that EU vessels will be guaranteed continued access to our waters in return for favourable trade terms,” he notes.

In reality, however, it looks pretty certain that EU fleets will be given some degree of access, though whether it turns to be less or more than they have under the EU remains to be seen.

At this point in time even Brexit itself seems to be up in the air.

At the time of writing Theresa May’s government was suffering defeat after defeat over the Brexit deal the EU 27 have signed off on, with no guarantees that the Prime Minister would survive the debacle.

Assurances over fishing rights, even should any be received, therefore look somewhat moot.

This article appeared in The Herald's special report on Scotlands Fisheries Sector on the 15th December 2018