20 APRIL 1991, Page 38


Low tide for seamen

Allan Massie ANEURIN Bevan once described Britain as 'an island of coal surrounded by fish'. Now the coal industry contracts and the fish are running out. Stocks of staple white fish, such as haddock and cod, are de- pleted. Restrictions, which grow tighter every year, have to be imposed on our fishermen to conserve the resource. Fishing has become something to delight the bureaucrat, since it offers the possibil- ity of endless and ever more complicated regulation, and to appal the free mar- keteer. How has this come about?

British — and especially Scottish fishermen have been squeezed between two forces: nationalism and supra-nation- alism. In Nye Bevan's day we had two sorts of fishermen, the deep-water trawlermen, who journeyed far and fished, mostly, off Iceland, and those who fished within a day's sail of their home ports, in the North Sea, the Minch, or the Irish Sea. Iceland's decision in the late 1960s to extend their territorial waters to a 200-mile limit des- troyed our deep-water fleet; ports like Aberdeen and Grimsby suffered. We could have protected our own stocks and our own fishermen by the same device. The ex- tension of our territorial waters to 200 miles (or the median line of the North Sea) would have secured the interests, and guaranteed the future, of our fishermen. But the moment was not right. We were applying for entry to the European Economic Community, and the Treaty of Rome pro- vided for the creation of a Common Fisher- ies Policy. This had not yet been agreed, but its principle was already established; and that principle provided for common access to Community fishing waters.

This was not to our advantage. It so happens that approximately two thirds of fish stocks are found and caught within what would have been British waters, if we had followed the example of Iceland, Norway, Canada and other countries and extended them to the new internationally accepted 200-mile limits. We might, at least, have been in a better bargaining position when the limits became Euro- pean.

The Heath government was so eager to get into the EEC that it accepted the general principle of common access with- out troubling about the fishermen. The details could be settled later. They were still left unsettled in the Wilson govern- ment's renegotiation of certain areas of the Treaty of Accession. The Common Fisher- ies Policy was not finally agreed until December 1981. At that time Mrs Thatch- er was immersed in her Budget disputes, and the fishermen were neglected.

The CFP satisfied nobody, except perhaps the Commission, which could con- gratulate itself on a difficult job per- formed. For, of course, given the principle of common access to common waters, the policy was almost bound to leave every- body feeling they had got less than they wanted. It was a case of rationing. Access to a resource that was in danger of deple- tion was to be tightly controlled. It was just like war — a bureacrat's dream.

British fishermen suffered most, simply because they had most to lose. They were allocated a little over a third of the Total Allowable Catch. It sounds generous until you reflect on the proportion (almost two thirds) to which they felt they had a claim, the proportion they would have enjoyed if we had not entered the European Econo- mic Community, and been prepared to sacrifice the fishing industry to the satisfac- tion of our other interests. Since then pressure has been main- tained. The problem of conservation of stocks has not been solved. Industrial fishermen still catch excessive numbers of immature fish. Shetland fishermen would like to see the Norway Pout Box (an area of the North Sea from which industrial fishermen with their factory ships are excluded) enlarged. There have been con- stant and continual arguments about the permissible size of mesh used in nets.

The EEC Fisheries Commissioner, Manuel Marin recently called for the mesh size to be increased to 120 mm, a figure apparently plucked out of the air and unsupported by any scientific evidence. Scottish fishermen believe that while such a mesh size would undoubtedly conserve stocks, it would do so by making fishing unprofitable, for such nets would hold neither haddock nor whiting. They advo- cate that an 80 mm square mesh panel be inserted in the present 90 mm diamond mesh nets; the point about this is that the diamond mesh draws together as the net fills, thus trapping immature fish, while the square mesh doesn't. They have been convinced by the evidence of ,sea-going trials that this proposal would be effective. They also recommend that boats should be restricted to one type of net.

They are not, however, enamoured of the latest Community regulation. This commands any boat, which from 1 January to 30 June 1990 took a catch exceeding 100,000 tonnes of which half was made up of cod and haddock, to be tied up for eight consecutive days in every month. One can see the advantage: if a boat is tied up, everyone can be sure it is not fishing; but, `Hello, is that the fire brigade?'


in terms of conservation, it is of doubtful value. It could also be dangerous since a skipper, having perhaps missed several days of good fishing, may be tempted to put to sea in adverse conditions. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation even sus- pects that the regulation may offend that sacred principle of the Community which guarantees free movement of labour; they say it is 'an infringement of a man's right to go to sea'. But no bureaucrat ever minded infringing individual rights.

The Federation is on more secure ground when it argues that if the fishing industry is being adversely affected by `negative' elements in conservation policy, then it should benefit from 'positive' ones. The Commission itself has said that the CFP is not only about quotas, access and resources, but also about structures. This in common language means the size and composition of fleets. The fact is that the Community fishing fleet is too big: too many boats are chasing too few fish. Manuel Mann goes so far as to claim that the fleet should be cut by 40 per cent. Since some member states, Germany in parti- cular, could argue that their fleet is below capacity, this would imply an even bigger cut in the British fleet. Bob Allan, Presi- dent of the SFF, thinks that 20 per cent of it should be decommissioned.

Unfortunately, though a Community scheme for decommissioning exists, the British Government is opposed to its enactment. Ian Lang, the new Secretary of State for Scotland, recently said, 'You could put something like £100 million into the scheme and still not reduce the fishing effort, because the vessels and owners who would take advantage of it would be those catching least and would probably be contemplating leaving the industry any- way.' No doubt there is some truth in this, but it sits ill when compared with the set-aside schemes available to farmers, which are in effect decommissioning by another name.

The real reasons for the Government's opposition to decommissioning are, first, that they made a botch of an earlier (national) scheme introduced in 1983, and second, that the Treasury fears the cost, hoping that natural wastage (of those `contemplating leaving the industry any- way') will do the trick. Unfortunately it won't: fishermen are businessmen who are usually in hock to the bank. Few can afford to leave the industry without the assurance of a decommissioning scheme. Besides, the Treasury's fears are exaggerated. The EEC scheme provides for 70 per cent of the cost of decommissioning (which might amount to as much as £250,000 for scrapping a vessel between ten and 20 years old) to be Paid by the Community, and only 30 per cent by national governments. Since such a boat is likely to have been fully depreciated over the years, the Treasury would claw back a good part of its 30 per cent in tax.

Ironically the Council of Ministers agreed on a decommissioning scheme as long ago as 1986, when the British minister Michael Jopling held the presidency. He commended it to the press; then his minis- try declined to operate it. This is almost an good as example of the indolent frivolity with which the Government has treated the question of fisheries as John Selwyn Gum- mer's claim that the new eight days' tie-up would enable fishermen from religious communities in the north-east of Scotland to observe the Sabbath without jeopardis- ing their activities at other times. Not surprisingly, they consider that Sabbath observance is a matter between them and their Maker which they can manage with- out Mr Gummer's help.

Nor is that the sum of the Government's blunders. It has done nothing to discourage over-capacity in the industry. Indeed its licensing policy has been a contributory factor, for it put no restriction on the size of boats, merely on their number. It has been possible therefore for a licence- holder to replace an old boat by a larger new one.

As a result, we have reached the strange state where Scottish fishermen, at least, feel more confidence in the Commission (despite Senor Marin's habit of pulling numbers out of the air) than they do in the British Government. Bob Allan says simp- ly, 'The Commission has a better notion of reality'. Meanwhile, with the CFP due for what could be substantial review in 1992, it seems likely that the Commission has grown weary of the unwillingness of the British Government to put our house in order. Almost everyone agrees that con- servation of stocks is necessary. 'Reduced quotas and effort limitation will not work if the fleet remains at the same size,' says Bob Allan, 'and unless a new conservation policy has the confidence of the fishermen it won't work either.'

Meanwhile stocks dwindle, fishermen earn less than they did in 1987 (though fuel costs, and interest charges have both soared) and John Gummer prattles about Sabbath observance. The fishing industry was served a bad turn by our entry into the EEC; one would think that the least the Government could do was to listen to our fishermen and work constructively on their behalf. But the least seems to be too much.