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 Scottish Fishing Communities - Policies





Sea change for Scottish fishing


A paper commissioned by the Scottish Government

and the Economic and Social Research Council for

Change & Continuity in Scotland’s Fishing Communities


Public Policy Seminar, Pittodrie Stadium, Aberdeen, 11 March 2008


Alastair McIntosh draws on his experience growing up on the Isle of Lewis and on work that he has published jointly with the former east coast trawlerman and international fisheries consultant, David Thomson.


ALASTAIR MCINTOSH is a writer, lecturer, social activist, broadcaster and campaigning academic from the Isle of Lewis. He is a Fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology in Edinburgh – a network for ecological and social transformation and a director of the GalGael Trust in Glasgow – an organisation that is a ‘cultural anchor point’ around which local people in Govan are re-kindling skills and connection with coastal communities. Alastair is also a Visiting Fellow of the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages at the University of Ulster, and Visiting Professor of Human Ecology at the University of Strathclyde.


This paper was published on 11 March 2008 in the conference proceedings, Change and Continuity in Scotland’s Fishing Communities, Scottish Government & ESRC, pp. 17-20, with forewords by Prof Ian Diamond, Chief Executive of the ESRC and Richard Lochhead MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and The Environment. (Even as this paper was written and just afterwards, some very positive changes were coming into the Scottish fishing industry, for example, see the report in The Herald of 5 April 2008: "Lockhead announces new fish conservation programme". See also, as of 20 November 2008, http://www.theherald.co.uk/display.var.2469348.0.0.php?utag'076 .)



If the Scottish Government could move fisheries more into the control of communities, it would be like ‘land reform for the sea’. Fishing would be restored as a diversely productive way of life and no longer a dying industry


Let me tell you why fisheries mean something to me. When I was a boy growing up in Lewis, the old men would take us out in their boats and from teenage years onwards we’d put to sea on our own. We only fished with hand lines, but we’d take a good haul of ‘haddies’ and whiting from the loch and share them out in the village. It created social cohesion in the community and gave us boys a mentored and meaningful rite of passage into the responsibilities of adult life. But all that changed very suddenly in the early 1970s. It happened over just a couple of years and it has been occurring in many other parts of the world (I even saw the same process three decades ago when I worked in Papua New Guinea!) What has taken place is that the wider fishing industry – its technology, capital structure and most important of all, the policy environment, have changed radically.


Implicit meanings of local practices


Traditionally, our fishing had been governed by limited technology and the implicit meaning of local practices – the way in which people had traditionally learned to do ‘the right thing’, often without needing to be fully aware of why. For example, the west coast taboo against fishing on the Sabbath was, and often still is, a perfectly natural conservation measure that also conserves family lives within coastal communities. But as change swept in during the early 1970s, many local practices that encoded respect for social and ecological systems broke down.


As a youth, what ruined it for me was that trawlers started coming in at night and illegally sweeping the mouth of the sea loch. The village talked of dumping old cars in the water to snag their nets, but it never happened. It didn’t happen because these weren’t east coasters or even the Spaniards; these were our boys! They now had debts to pay off and fancy new aspirations. They, or rather, we, were the ones snagged in ways that short-circuited the ecology of coastal communities.


Fishing’s triple whammy


Three factors brought about these changes. First, new technology, such as cheap echo sounders and more powerful boats increased the range and catching efficiency. This had huge benefits, not least in safety. But the side effects that were not immediately recognised were:


·        handed-down skills

·        stabilising social structures

·        innate respect for how the ocean and seabed should be treated.


These became diminished in a brash youthful determination to plunder what was there while it was still going.


Second, back in the 1970s, community-based family-run boats conducted most fishing, especially in Scotland. But as the potential emerged for an intensive industry to take control, it became a magnet for investors. These were more interested in trading quotas and return on capital than in community cohesion and holistic resource management. ‘Harvest’ transmogrified into ‘bounty’ – no longer could boats meaningfully be given names like ‘Ocean’s Providence’.


Third, and most important of all, was the policy environment. To put it bluntly, Ted Heath sold Scotland into the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) as an entry dowry to the EEC. The benefits went to land-based manufacturing industries mainly down south. We were left to go begging, cap in hand, as subsidy junkies for regional aid. Our resource base had been ‘prostituted’ like a maritime Highland Clearance. By treating fish as a UK-wide and European resource, centrally controlled, fishermen’s sense of being responsible for their own patch was undermined.


By-catch of policy back-wash


With relative free-for-all unleashed, law-abiding fishers found themselves criminalised as they struggled to compete with continental fleets and out-of-touch regulations. Most notorious of all is the enforced dumping of unwanted accidental by-catches of species that exceed quotas. As one skipper said, ‘I’ve just returned from yet another fishing trip where we were forced to dump 200 boxes of coley and 100 boxes of haddock – value up to £18,000. I’m absolutely disgusted with this total waste of resources.’


Today, waste from by-catch discarded at sea is not reliably measured, but may be up to 600,000 tonnes of fish from all boats operating in British waters (Thomson 2008). British fishing boats landed only 614,000 tonnes in 2006. The EU admits to 40-60% of the North Sea catch being dumped (BBC 2007).


In recent evidence to the House of Lords, David Thomson said of this:


‘I have seen no evidence that measures since 2002 have increased the amounts of discards or by-catch, but certainly the past three decades, the illogical fixation on single-species quotas in a mixed-species fishery, has been the key element that has resulted in the enforced discarding of over half a million tonnes of good fish each year, in the North Sea. By any measure of fishery management assessment, this has been a travesty for the fish stock, the markets, and the fishers, and has probably caused more damage to the resource than any degree of excess fishing pressure.’ (Thomson 2008)


These discards are dead fish; they don’t swim away to be caught another day. Just to set these figures in context; the entire Icelandic fishery, employing 11% of the national workforce and generating marine exports valued at $1.3 billion, is built on an annual catch of just over a million tonnes (Kurien 2000). Britain, and especially Scotland, is discarding what could still be one of its most valuable industries.


Survival of the fittest, rather than the most fitting


Fleet owners have been forced to modernise, or get squeezed out by a CFP that favours ‘survival of the fittest’ in economic terms rather than ‘survival of the most fitting’ in terms of human ecology. Today some three-dozen millionaires scoop-up Scotland’s entire catch of herring and mackerel. About 45 pelagic (ocean-going) ships involving some 450 crewmembers now monopolise an erstwhile community resource that supported over 1,000 boats, 10,000 crewmembers and an even greater workforce on shore at the end of World War Two. Between 1996 and 2006 catches of haddock and cod by UK boats have more than halved, the number of boats fell from nearly 8,000 to just over 6,000 and the number of employed fishers fell from 18,000 to 13,000 (BBC 2007).


Fishing profits have been concentrated into the hands of a few, and they’re the ones with the muscle to exert at the metropolitan negotiating tables. By contrast, fishing communities never evolved such ‘wheeler-dealer land legs’ – that’s why they now stagger on their last legs; it is their very decency that trips them up. It is also why, as Professor John Kurien points out, effective governance is vital to curb the political power of naked capital. As he puts it, ‘the Icelandic system of governance highlights the potentials for making fisheries the “engine of growth of the economy” of a very small nation with large fishery resources’ (Kurien 2000).


What can be done?


In parts of America, South East Asia and North Atlantic nations not in the CFP, management policies have been developed that provide greater ‘subsidiarity’ – control to regional bodies representing local communities (Thomson 2008). These provide an incentive to regulate fishing methods in accordance with sustainable community and conservation principles.


Methods include:

·        effort limitation (eg restricting days at sea)

·        technical conservation (eg restrictions on mesh size)

·        marine conservation areas, which should be backed by WWF and The World Conservation Union principles that include full consultation with local communities, participation by them, and payment of any due compensation

·        most innovative of all, rights-based management systems where regionally-based community structures control quotas and licenses (Woodrow and Gallaugher 2006)

·        in some cases fine-tuned sensitivity to local cultural and even religious considerations are taken into account (Hinz and Bratton 2000).


Lessons from Namibia


An example of a country much smaller than Scotland achieving huge success is Namibia in southern Africa. This 1.5 million-person-state was under enormous pressure to continue allowing access to the EU fleet. But Namibia stood its ground, claimed control of its own 200-mile limit, and encouraged indigenous business. It now has one of the most productive and best managed fisheries in the world, overtaking mining as its largest industrial employer.



As David Thomson put it in his evidence to the Lords:


‘Namibia, which unlike Faeroes, still has a basic quota system, uses an arrangement of levies to limit targeting of non-quota species. All fish caught must be landed. On-board inspectors monitor and police that – any fish landed excess to quota or not included in the quota, are sold. The proceeds are returned to the vessel – minus a levy. The levy is finely balanced to achieve two purposes: one is that the fishers do not lose money by keeping, storing, and landing the fish; and the other is that they make no profit on that part of the catch. Each year, when total landings are assessed and compared with the previously set total allowable catch or species quotas in Namibia, there is little disparity, and so the system has been seen to work well.’ (Thomson 2008)


Optimising economic linkages and multipliers


With a sharp eye to such examples, fisheries policy in the new Scotland must have as its primary policy the optimisation of social linkages, economic multipliers and locally controlled resource conservation. A ‘linkage’ is where one activity integrates with another, and this enhances the economic ‘multiplier’ effect. For example, landing haddock at Arbroath links to processing ‘smokies’, which multiplies activity on the railways, in engineering workshops, post-offices, schools, churches, tourism and pubs.


Fillet out the fish and much else in the socio-economic structure is rendered spineless.


The investor from outside is blind to this. That is why economic regeneration must be kindled from within maritime communities of place that have an interest in conserving that place.


The 1997 report of the then Scottish Secretary’s Advisory Group on Sustainable Development got it absolutely right: it emphasised the need for a ‘change of culture’ towards ‘sustainable practices’ including, ‘enhancing a sense of ownership by giving communities special access and responsibility for their local fishing resource’ and ‘reform of the Common Fisheries Policy for regional and local variations in the allocations of rights to fish.’ On such principles the Scottish Government is now in a position to build.



Further reading


BBC, (20/11/07) Guide to UK fishing industry, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6067722.stm


Cooke, J. (BBC rural affairs correspondent) (20/11/07) Fish dumping ‘will ruin industry’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7102241.stm


Hinz, S. and Power Bratton, S., ‘Religious Responses to Fisheries Decline in Irish Coastal Communities with a Comparison to the Pacific Northwest Region, USA’, Ecotheology, Sheffield Academic Press, 8, 2000, 111-128.

Kurien, J., ‘Icelandic Fisheries Governance: A Third World Understanding,’ Economic and Political Weekly, 19/08/00, 3061-6. Download at: http://www.epw.org.in/epw/uploads/articles/7040.pdf

Kurien, J. (2006) Untangling Subsidies, Supporting Fisheries: The WTO Fisheries Subsidies Debate and Developing-country Priorities, ICSF Occasional Paper. http://www.icsf.net/icsf2006/uploads/publications/occpaper/pdf/english/issue_2/ALL.pdf

Lawrie, A. and Matthews, H. and Ritchie, D. (eds) (1988) Glimmer of Cold Brine: a Scottish Sea Anthology, Aberdeen University Press.

McIntosh, A. (2004) Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, Aurum Press, London.

Thomson, D. (2006) A Sustainable Future for Small Coastal Fishing Communities and (2008) Evidence Submitted to the UK inquiry into CFP management. Posted at: www.AlastairMcIntosh.com/general/resources.htm under the title, David Thomson - Fishing Industry & Community Papers.

Woodrow, M. and Gallaugher, P. (eds) (2006) The Future of Endangered Coastal Communities: Building Capacity for Renewal - Conference Proceedings, Centre for Coastal Studies, Simon Frazer University, Canada. Download at: http://www.sfu.ca/coastalstudies/changeislands2006.htm




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11 March 2008