Scotland’s fisheries minister welcomed Scotland’s record landings and paid tribute to the industry as he opened the Skipper Expo show in Aberdeen last weekend, visiting many of the stands on what was his first visit to the show as minister, reports Tim Oliver.

Above: Scotland’s fisheries minister Fergus Ewing being interviewed by Tim Oliver at the Skipper Expo Int. Aberdeen.

Fergus Ewing said the fishing industry played ‘a key role’ in Scotland’s rural economy. It supported jobs and businesses at sea and also in coastal communities and contributed significantly to Scotland’s ‘world-class food and drink success story’.

“These positive figures reflect the hard work of all those involved with our sea fishing sector,” said the minister.

Commenting on the ‘magnificent’ exhibition, he said attendance numbers, exhibitors and foreign visitors had all increased over the previous year. “This is a great exhibition – the mood is up, the spirit is up,” he said.

Stressing the importance of the industry to Scotland, he said that his main aim as fisheries Cabinet Secretary was to be ‘the champion of the fishing industry’.

“Fishing is a major industry for Scotland. It’s not a small rural industry we think of largely in terms of the past – it’s now an industry characterised by the use of modern, sophisticated technology – that’s not perhaps sufficiently understood by the public at large,” said the minister.

The public also tended not to be aware of the ‘huge breadth’ of the industry and the importance of all the ancillary businesses ashore that support the catching sector – including processors and boat builders.

He said that his recent decision to retain the FQA quota system had given confidence to those who wanted to invest in new boats and equipment to make that investment, and to banks and financiers to help to finance investments.

The minister acknowledged that there was ‘a lot of politics around at the moment’ but said his job was to support the industry.

“My aim, focus and determination and, indeed, 99% of my time is spent on the practicalities of supporting our fishing industry in Scotland in all its endeavours, from the modest creeler to the most successful pelagic skipper. They’re all entitled to support from this government, and as long as I am occupying this job they will have that full support, no matter what challenges may lie ahead.

“We work closely with the SFF, SCFF and all others involved in this great industry and I’m confident we will see you going from strength to strength.”

Speaking to Fishing News, Fergus Ewing said if he had decided to change the FQA quota system some of the investment now being made in the Scottish industry might not have happened. The decision had also been welcomed by some of the supply chain businesses he had spoken to at the show.

One of the reasons for sticking with FQAs was to encourage new entrants to the industry.

“Dealing with the cost of new boats is a major challenge for any new entrant,” said the minister. “Family businesses are the backbone of the Scottish industry and the decision we took with the FQAs was important to their security. Those who were thinking of upgrading and investing in new boats had the confidence to do so and the support of their lenders.”

He said the onshore sector had benefitted from EMFF grants worth around £77m. “I’ve asked the Scottish Tories whether they will replace that money or will the UK government provide a budget line to support the work of ports and harbours and processors that have been supplied by the EMFF, but we’ve been given no inkling or assurance whatsoever about that.”

Access to the European market was also worth several hundred million pounds and the availability of labour both onshore and offshore was another crucial aspect of Brexit.

“There’s a very large number of European citizens working not only onshore in processing factories but offshore as well – there are many complexities,” said Fergus Ewing.

“At the end of the day, my job is to champion fishing interests, irrespective of politics – that’s not my personal bag. That’s why I’m here today, why I’m engaged fairly deeply with the fishing industry in order to educate myself as to how best to represent them.”

Landings ‘unalloyed good news’ across every sector

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the SFF, which sponsored the exhibition, said the show was now very international, with 19 other nations looking to sell boats and equipment to the Scottish industry and be ‘part of the action’.

Opening the show with the Scottish minister, he said the buoyancy of the industry was reinforced by the preliminary Scottish Fisheries Statistics for 2016, which were ‘unalloyed good news across every sector in terms of volume and price’.

“The industry is in a position where the stocks are in an excellent state and in the future, we hope, if it’s handled correctly, will not just get better but will get very much better,” said the SFF chief.

“For far, far too long international norms of who’s in charge of waters and who decides the opportunities have not been available to us, but very soon they will be.

“If Brexit is handled correctly, we will have not only this show but we can look forward to many shows and the benefits the increased opportunity will bring to coast communities and beyond. This is no small thing – it’s a step change.”

Speaking to Fishing News, Bertie Armstrong said: “We regard Brexit as a once in a lifetime opportunity – this is not coming again. The legacy of the days when everyone fished everywhere with no quotas, and opportunity being distributed in that sort of ratio afterwards is nonsense.

“All that has to go and we’re going to get one chance either to join the CFP or to stay out of it. It will need to be handled very carefully by the government. We are looking therefore for assurances from all governments – this industry will not forgive being sold down the river by anybody.”

He said that after the election the Conservatives were likely to form the UK government that would take the country out of the EU.

There was an ‘unequivocal statement’ in the party’s manifesto, and the ‘relevant minister’ had written to the SFF with an ‘unequivocal commitment to taking charge of our waters out to 200 miles and being in charge of access’, he said.

“That’s what we are hoping for and we will not forgive any government that backtracks on that or sells us down the river.

“We need to get out of the CFP – we cannot be in a queue to rejoin, we cannot be negotiating conditions. The law is quite clear about the position we’ll be in after Brexit and that’s what the fishing industry wants no matter what the politics are.”

‘Tories planning industry sell-out’

Fergus Ewing said the Scottish government wanted to see national control of UK waters after Brexit – it was ‘absolutely fundamental’, he told Fishing News.

But he claimed the Conservatives are planning to sell out the industry during the Brexit negotiations.

“It’s absolutely the case that we do not have a fair share of the fishing and proper entitlement to our EEZ, but I have directly asked George Eustice and Andrea Leadsom on several occasions to confirm that they will not trade away as part of the Brexit negotiations permanent access to our EEZ – they have not answered that question at all,” said the Scottish minister.

“It’s perfectly obvious one of the very few negotiating pawns they believe they have is the permanent access to our EEZ – we’re not talking here about the different issue of annual arrangements that are made in relation to swaps and quotas and TACs and so on, we’re talking about permanent access, and it’s abundantly clear to me that the fishing industry is being sold a pup by the Tories.

“They’re planning to sell out Britain’s waters – not only Scotland’s waters – as part of their Brexit negotiation. And if they’re not, why haven’t they been willing to give an unequivocal assurance to the contrary to me?

“The very first speech the PM made about Brexit this year specifically referred to Spanish fishermen – look at the wording of it, she didn’t mention Scottish fishermen, she didn’t even mention English fishermen.”

Referring to the wording of the Conservative’s manifesto in fishing he said: “It’s a matter of incontrovertible certainty that ambiguity in a manifesto is deliberate not accidental, and therefore I think there’s a real risk that those fishermen who strongly wish to see more control over our waters, something we have always shared, are being conned by a government that has no intention of doing what the fishermen believe will happen.

“We will respond to charges that are made but I do think there’s a real risk that a very simplistic, false and disingenuous message is being peddled by the Tories in this election for purely political purposes –I’m not sure it will do them much good in the long run.”

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