Dear Mr Lochhead,
This time last year, I made the decision to come out of a company-owned boat and throw all I had into being my own boss. It’s not a choice to be taken lightly nowadays, especially with all the restrictions and increasing policies fishermen have in place, alongside the rising running costs of purchasing and operating a vessel, but at the time, I believed we had a bright, positive future in this area as well as many other fishermen.
We’d pushed hard to do the best we could to maintain stable stocks and do some good for conservation, including suggesting a number of measures that were eventually brought in to help sustain a viable and vibrant industry for years to come.
I’m from Dunure and – like many of the Clyde communities – fishing has supported and, indeed, created villages and towns for generations. Fishing has always been important in my village; the professional harbours in Dunure, Ardrossan and in Troon were all constructed between 1806 and 1811. Ayr Harbour actually dates back to at least 1205 and its at least as old as the borough itself, so it’s safe to say fishing has always played a big part in the area’s development and culture.
Fishing, fishermen and their families have been the very backbone of life around the Clyde, well before many of the recent stakeholders started to take an interest or become involved. We honestly don’t consider ourselves more important than any other groups because we’ve been around much longer than many of the lobby organisations or other Clyde stakeholders, but we hope at least our expertise, first-hand knowledge, experience and opinions – which helped to form communities around the Clyde – are considered fairly and not dismissed out of hand.
We might be less skilled in marketing our key messages than many partners, but we really know the Clyde, its features and its stocks. Our expertise should be vital in developing the marine environment, we have an advantage of knowing where fish are at times of year and see changes in the natural occurrences around the Clyde. If we are listened to then people will see that we’re not ‘pirates of the oceans’. We are constantly out on the waters and care seriously about marine life.
Having been brought up in a fishing family I was always close to the industry. A lot of family were involved over the generations and I started with my father and uncle 25 years ago. Like many men who grew up on the Clyde, in and around its fishing communities, it was the only job I had an interest in. I worked my way up from a half share deckie (deck-hand) to running my father’s boat. It was a challenge to actually take the plunge in having my own boat/business, but one I really hoped I could achieve and maybe continue to pass on down the family to the next generations.
People often assume that fishing is just a matter of dropping a net in the water, but as vessel owners and skippers we have to be responsible employers/recruiters, who are:
- Mindful of health and safety
- Aware of scientific advice on stocks and features
- Understand the weather
- Understand all of the marine partners you are also sharing the waters with (eg other fishermen, cable companies, port companies, the Royal Navy, leisure crafts and ferries etc.)
- Technologically savvy with onboard sonars/AIS
- Have a good head for engineering.
On top of the practical job, fishermen are required to work with complicated quota/TAC systems and attend countless EU, UK and Scottish meetings and complete frequent consultations regarding policy and legislation. It’s almost impossible to keep up at times with the diverse amount and volume of work, especially as fisheries is one of the most heavily regulated sectors.
Personally, I like to take an active role in guiding and governing the industry and helping to create and lead on good practice in the sector. For example, I sit on the Executive Committee of the Clyde Fishermen’s Association. Many other fishermen also give up their free time and sit on similar committees, forums and boards with the aim of supporting sustainable fishing into the future. There is much more to the job than many of the public might first expect, it can be a very intense working pattern too, definitely not your average nine to five.
Marine Protected Areas
It’s really important to start out by saying that many fishermen and fishing associations (such as the CFA and the SFF) were supportive of evidence-based and sensible MPA’s based on scientific need. Over the last four years, many fishermen gave up so much of their time in engaging in the consultation process for the development of MPA’s, and before the decision to announce a more ambitious MPA network, we honestly thought we had reached fair MPA proposals based on science.
The current proposals not only reach out past scientific advice, but they take no consideration at all of upstream and downstream socio-economic impacts. No assessments on how businesses such as seafood processing, fuel providers, net making, haulage, hospitality and boatyards and engineers are going to be impacted have been conducted, to implement MPA’s that so heavily impact sustainable fishing will also hit local business and international exports. Fishermen reinvest in local economies, even by shopping locally – if that investment in communities is removed it will have negative effects.
It’s worth noting that many years ago, before the MPA debates, it was actually the fishermen in the Clyde who negotiated and agreed to a No Take Zone around the South of Arran. In fact, the CFA proposed to COAST at the time that a bigger No Take Zone might be an idea, and they rejected the idea of the larger area, we really don’t know why. We aren’t against protection where required, but we are against closure of indigenous and sustainable sectors with no real rationale.
Perception of fishermen
It’s actually quite difficult when certain bodies try and paint a picture of fishermen, which might suit the objectives of their organisation but just isn’t based in reality. We aren’t unreasonable or hard to work with, we are practical and able to compromise, and it’s something we’re used to. Unlike many jobs, our lives can actually depend on knowing how to work as a team with people and we’ll always try and work with sensible proposals.
We are not pirates tearing up the Clyde; we are willing and conscientious partners and professionals who want to see improvements in the marine environment and are lobbying hard for more accurate and neutral science. We aren’t objecting to progress, we are objecting to proposals that aren’t based on consultation, facts or science. These proposals in times of well-documented austerity will damage communities, people and sustainable businesses, and potentially the marine environment too.
We would be poor community members if we didn’t point out there is a great deal of risk and harm, which could be caused by imposing measures that are over and above scientific advice, will cripple communities and be detrimental to the Scottish economy at large. It just goes against the grain of what these communities were built on – many of the areas that the MPA’s will impact are already suffering from problematic depopulation.
I was glad to watch the Parliamentary Evidence Session on 23rd September and hear the angler’s representative also state that the MPA process lacked clarity and proper science and socio-economics and should be re-conducted. This showed that the mobile gear fishing sector aren’t the only stakeholders who are concerned about the MPA proposals.
There also seems to be a real misconception that is being promoted to the public and politicians that mobile fishermen and static fishermen are completely divided and can’t work together. A few grant-funded West Coast organisations have been lobbying falsely that as a blanket rule, West Coast Creel Fishermen want the proposed MPA’s, and mobile fishermen do not. This is a constructed argument, which doesn’t stand up in reality. I firmly believe that some of these groups have only their own limited personal status and agenda in mind and it’s certainly not the wider benefit of the Clyde.
The CFA represent both mobile and static fishermen on the Clyde who work well together and have similar views on most issues. A quick look at Fishing News Facebook site will quickly establish that large numbers (quite possibly the majority) of creel fishermen do not agree with the current MPA proposals, just like the majority of the mobile fleet. The whole fleet does not wish to be stuck in one area, we need flexibility to move as conditions and safety require, and this is true for both mobile and static fishermen.
The public and politicians really have to be aware that the reality is very different from the PR messages being delivered from some organisations, which have a grant budget separate from the fishing industry itself. The older and more established organisations are, and always have been, self-funded and self-run by the fishermen themselves, therefore they truly represent fishermen’s views.
As an environmental example, there are already areas within Scotland that have been closed off to fishing for some time, such as Broad Bay. In fact, these areas haven’t seen a great increase in stocks or features, rather, they have become stale and depleted as starfish have become an unchecked marine predator in the waters. The closing of Broad Bay has been detrimental not only to fishing but arguably to the marine environment too – it’s been of more harm than benefit.
Cardigan Bay in Wales is another region to recently look at opening closed areas as academic studies by Bangor University have shown they have not achieved their objectives of improving stocks at all, quite the opposite. Loch Torridon is an example of a closed area that didn’t work – the area lost its MSC accreditation and most fishermen will agree that stocks have been decimated due to a high concentration of solely fishing the ground intensely with static gear.
The South of Arran MPA is the MPA that will have the most direct effect on what I do on a day-to-day basis, and it’s not, in my eyes, an idea that will do the Firth of Clyde any good, in fact it could be more destructive. As the areas the boats work are not constantly fished, the fleet has many factors to decide on when they choose what area the individual wants to go and fish in any set day. Weather conditions play a big part, along with tidal run. The fleet here has fished these grounds for over 50 years and prawn and scallop fishermen have continually improved gear and methods ensuring that we’re still sustainable.
The traditional fishermen working the Clyde are mindful of the marine environment and balance conservation of stocks and features with their productivity. We want to do all we can to avoid destroying the environment and we have built up an expertise in this area.
The Clyde fishermen have always attempted to lead the way in being conservation-minded. Roughly, 25-30 years ago two measures were established in the Clyde that were supported and encouraged by the fishermen – a size limit and a weekend ban on fishing to increase the sustainability of the stocks and marine environment. The weekend ban on fishing is unique in Scotland, and the Clyde is already the most regulated of fishing areas, which was pushed on by the fishermen themselves. Something most of the public will not be aware of.
The fleet here at home is probably more than half what it used to be in the mid 1990s. We have far less boats fishing in a more sustainable way. Fishing has changed so much, we have no boats left that pursue fish anymore as the fleet has been pigeon-holed into two jobs: prawns and scallops. However, we have to be clear that this is not because of a lack of fish in the Clyde, as some organisations have publicised. Fishing boats on the Clyde pursue prawns and scallops as quota measures meant that fishing for finfish became unviable for many and market demand has been more focused towards prawns.
It’s really worth pointing out that prawn stocks in the Clyde have been assessed by ICES to be stable and not at risk and so the quota proposals have recommended a 41% increase in the Clyde next year.
It’s also worth checking out Fishing for the Truth and the CFA social media as there are countless academic studies and footage to show the Clyde is alive with finfish – this has been proven for the last two years by ROV’s surveys that have been cable laying. The cameras are showing abundant fish in all areas. We really need more Marine Scotland neutral science to help prove this, it’s greatly lacking due to resources. There are so many elements that can affect fishing, both natural and manmade, for example, different moon phases, temperature changes and water quality can greatly affect bottom-trawling fishing.
However, fishermen on the Clyde have made a great deal of changes to ensure they are minimising any possible damage and protecting stocks. As already discussed, the fleet has halved in the last 30 or so years so the fishing intensity has greatly reduced. Over the last 15 years, the prawn boats left in the Clyde have modified their gear to ensure they aren’t catching finfish by creating smaller nets, lower headlines, larger small mesh panels (smp) and upping the cod end mesh size.
Just two years ago, Clyde fishermen were withdrawn from the days at sea cod recovery program. They took part in a Marine Scotland observer’s scheme, which proved they were catching less than 1% of cod. It really is difficult to catch any fish even to take home and cook.
It’s also a concern to start hemming boats to certain areas, it’s not a productive move in conservation terms as it only puts more pressure on the allotted areas you are allowed to fish in, which could, in turn, decimate those areas. Farmers don’t farm the same field with the same crop or animal every year, they rotate things around and fishermen need the ability to do the same.
Creeling has also changed over the years, and many creelers themselves are worried about the number of creels on the seabed now, many of which are unregulated. Sustainable creel and mobile fishermen do worry about fishing areas out and increased gear conflict, which is something neither party wins from and would seek to avoid. Studies such as the Torridon report highlight the dangers of fishing an area out with creels alone. Creels also take more females out of the ground compared to trawling, as the females hunt at night and they tend to be berried (with eggs) so taking them out of the environment in great numbers can deplete stock. It’s really a matter of finding a sensible balance between mobile and static fishing, which most places on the west coast have achieved for generations.
Fish farming has increased the chemicals and waste feed into the Clyde with many of the fish farms in MPA’s. SNH scientists have confirmed that enough chemicals would damage sensitive maerl beds. This is coupled by the fact that factories from the forestry initiatives also place chemicals where they have cut down large areas of trees, and as the soil does not hold the chemicals – which ultimately quickly feed through to the marine environment.
A real worry with the proposed MPA’s is safety. Every skipper makes a decision about the safety to go to sea dependent on weather. He’ll know his crew’s lives can depend on his judgment. The weather on the West Coast of Scotland can change dramatically though, and quickly, and in times like this it’s essential to be able to shelter. The South Coast of Arran provides this shelter, as do many of the other proposed MPA’s. These areas are often the designated winter fishing grounds for this very reason. For some Clyde boats, these areas provide up to 50% of their turnover, but more importantly they can be the areas that save people’s lives.
Better to reconsider MPA’s now before MSP’s have to face the reality of fishermen losing their lives unnecessarily.
On 9th October a Scottish Inshore Fisheries Conference was held, aimed at fishermen, but less than a dozen were there due to the timing and the appeal of the conference. The conference talked about increasing domestic sales of Scottish Seafood and extending international markets, but the truth is that current MPA’s will damage existing domestic and international markets greatly. Scottish Seafood is known as a quality brand and is in demand, more than this it’s sustainably available. How would we be expected to continue to meet current demand sustainably, let alone boost sales if the proposed MPA’s in their current form are brought in?
The fishing sector is not heavily subsidised like other areas in farming etc., the sector is worth seven times more per head in Scotland than it is in the rest of the UK – it’s a massive asset. It’s a success story without continual support and the international markets have been built on reputation and years of trust. If Scottish Fishermen are no longer able to supply these markets, they could potentially be lost to Scotland permanently. It could be so damaging to a productive and sustainable Scottish domestic and export market. If this number was to be made up by the static side, how many creels and divers would then be intensely fishing the same grounds where mobile fishermen once were? Will it be any different in conservation terms? These very same areas, which are protected by MPA’s, will still be under the same or more pressure to fulfil market demands.
Would I stay in the industry if the MPA comes into force? I doubt it. It’s becoming a major challenge to stay viable. I may only have a crew of two or three, but that’s two or three men with families to provide an income for, not including my own family commitments. Then there’s the shore-side jobs that rely on the investment back into the communities of the turnover from the fishing industry (which is already decreasing rapidly) with the engineers, welders, electricians, shipyards for refits, oil suppliers, chandlers, net suppliers and most important, processors.
The actual figure in decrease of my earnings is unknown but it will be considerably more than the stated 1% from the government. Some men in the CFA are looking at a decrease of up to 50% in business turnover, and high crew loss numbers. Coupled with the same fleet chasing the same stock but in half the area? The list of people affected is endless.
Nobody wants a free-for-all Derby fishing; we are all looking to the future. However, some successful campaigns seem to have convinced parts of the government to come up with something that will be hell-bent in ruining what was, at one time, a job to be proud of and influential to Scotland’s economy.
The current government in power needs to stop and rethink quickly. This initiative might look good on paper, and often it’s good to have a ‘let’s do that’ attitude, but in this case its vital to actually listen to the people who are best qualified to talk about the actual happenings on the ground. It’s not lobby groups with grant funding and offices in cities like Edinburgh and London, it’s the people who really know the communities, businesses and marine environment.
The fishermen and their leaders want to make more opportunities for the fleet and quota available to change jobs, instead of everybody chasing one or two stocks. An audience should be given to the men that have fished the waters for successive years.
The fleet here in the Clyde is an aged fleet of boats, but there is a decent living to be made if you’re prepared to work. We are not multi-million pound large companies with factory trawlers taking millions of tons of fish out the water, but small-scale (often family-operated) companies supplying a fresh, healthy produce successfully nationally and internationally.
We produce technically fully organic seafood, although we can’t advertise this (as we can’t exactly trace our source from pre-catching it). We punch above our weight despite a range of obstacles, but the MPA’s as proposed might just be a step too far.
If we aren’t careful, the next generation won’t inherit any fishing industry, it’ll be consigned to history for Scotland, like the successful shipbuilding industry we once had – other countries have now taken the lead and we’ve lost a skill/market/asset we can’t recover. The boats that are left don’t pursue fish anymore due to differing factors like cost of quota, leasing and markets. The fleet has been pigeon-holed into two jobs: prawns and scallops. Instead of more regulation of what is left, it might make sense to encourage fishermen to diversify into other methods or species of fish and fishing. The Clyde herring used to have an exceptional reputation with a livable quota set on a seasonal fishery. One year this all changed, not due to overfishing, instead the fish did not meet the standards set in previous years. The Clyde men now have no market for Clyde herring due to this one blip and its knock-on effects, processors went out and sourced their seafood elsewhere and the market was lost.
I can assure you that these lost markets will happen again but on a greater scale, both nationally and internationally if these current MPA’s do go ahead. I urge you, Cabinet Secretary, to please think carefully about the communities and economies that will irreparably be damaged unless serious reconsideration is given.