Time to wake up, smell the fish, and really take back control

Fiona MacInnes looks at Scotland’s fishing industry and argues that, post-Brexit, the industry is either heading for total corporate domination that will exhaust our resources and impoverish fisherman, or a new collective model where fish are used for the good of Scotland as a whole.

Fiona is a writer and creative, community enabler and activist, with a lifetime connection with fishing in Orkney. She writes in a personal capacity unconnected to any organisations or professional roles with which she is connected

Wild fish that swim, breed and live in scientifically proved abundance within the territorial waters of Scotland are first and foremost a food resource. 

Fish are a gift of God, or if your belief system is science and logic, the result of properly managed and clean biological environment. However you perceive them, wild fish are naturally occurring and, a bit like oil, they’re valuable, but with one difference – they are essential as a source of protein and are entirely renewable.

If the last time you saw a fishing boat was on a Captain Birdseye ad then fish is of more importance to you than just about anything else. It may be the last national asset that you can claim some ownership of. Count up the natural assets that you have lost, and realise why fish is the most important economic and political football of the day. It is the new oil.

The crusty old bearded Capt Birdseye with his salty tales and jolly wind-reddened face could not be further from reality. Fish are at the heart of big business and politics, and how our relationship with the fish in our sea pans out will be of crucial economic importance for the future of all, from Castlemilk to Caithness and Unst to Uphall.

The Scottish Government defines fish as a natural national resource . That’s good. You would think that would be enough to ensure it is safe as a publicly owned asset.  But it’s not. Here is the history of the shunting of a natural asset down the one way blind alley of privatisation.

In the 1990s all the fish in EU waters were divided up among the fishing member states. Each got a percentage share of the fish that were counted up from the three previous years of fishing of every boat in the fleet at that time. This provided a baseline of the total fish for every species that was out there in the sea.

“The Scottish Government defines fish as a natural national resource . That’s good. You would think that would be enough to ensure it is safe as a publicly owned asset.  But it’s not.”

Since then scientists have measured the quantity of each and every fish type in each and every section of water throughout the EU and, based on their evidence, either cut or increased the percentage of fish that could be caught.

Back in the 90s every fisherman received his allocation of fish free. There were those that were unlucky – the three year reference period caught out some who hadn’t fished, whose boats happened to be broken down, or happened to buy a boat with no fishing record. So be it, that was hard luck on them.

Since the days of the 1990s some have sold their fish allocation, some retired, some were incentivised to cut up their boats to reduce catching power, some saw a lucrative market in selling and renting their share instead of actively fishing for it themselves and some resisted the emergent allocations market on principal and eventually went out of business.

For those that remain they have all been compelled into an unforeseen paper market of access to fish or face penalties for illegal fishing and bankruptcy. There is no escape from the quota market.

As markets do, the shrewd, the devious and the happenstance lucky can make a lot of money out of natural or man-made shortages.

Today we have arrived at a position where the right to catch fish has become a tradable commodity. Of those who are still fishing, who received their allocations in the 90s, these allocations bear little resemblance to the fish they actually catch in 2017.

Many unborn in the 90s cannot become fishermen as the expense of entering the industry is rooted in the enormous costs of allocations. This has limited new entrants into fishing to those within a millionaire’s circle or who can muster the financial backing of large companies.

As with any tradable commodity it accrues into fewer and fewer hands and keeping the price of that commodity high preserves income for the owners and speculators. The right to catch fish has become a paper commodity to which value is attached. Banks have bestowed a value on the paper right to catch so they too now have an interest in maintaining the commodity at a high price level.

“Banks, speculators and big business, there we have it – all in bed together eager to shape and preserve the future of fish and fishing in the image that reflects their avarice not the collective good.”

So fish is far from free, it is owned and traded before it is ever caught. It is still however a national natural food resource, technically a collective asset of the entire population of the country.

With fish we are at a clear fork in the road.

Banks, speculators and big business, there we have it – all in bed together eager to shape and preserve the future of fish and fishing in the image that reflects their avarice not the collective good.

You can see that the banks, the large allocations owners (Fixed Quota Allocations or FQAs for short) and traders all have an interest in preserving and consolidating the steady slide of fish, our natural public asset, into corporate hands. There are many more fishermen that are ‘quota poor’ than those who are ‘quota wealthy’.

There are two clear sides to the industry which is split on the economic model which best delivers ‘efficiency’.

To the large scale quota owners who now see their ‘ownership’ of the access to your national asset as a property right that they have paid for, any change to the system is a threat to a market that works for them.

Meanwhile those who are stuck fishing with little or no allocations to reflect the pattern of their fishing set in aspic at a point more than 20 years ago, are denied any possibility of reform, change or a recalibration of the three year reference period.

Those in their 20s and 30s are denied entry to an industry that has now become the preserve of millionaires. Fish, fishing boats, and fishermen will all be owned by a few companies unless the opportunity for rebalance and reform is taken now.

Prior to Brexit, the Scottish Government conducted consultations on the allocations of quota. Unsurprisingly for a highly complex and sectorally specialised consultation, this did not receive much oxygen outside the narrow confines of the fishing fraternity.

In an environment where money is power and govern a fisherman’s (no fisherwomen spring to mind) access to the allocations that make his fishing legal or illegal it might be expected that a desperate individual mindful of the murkiness of the fishing world that has previously operated in a twilight zone just beyond the law, and with convictions a plenty, might be very reluctant to rock the boat against the vested interests to whom he has to turn cap in hand to source quota.

The government has stalled on change to preserve business stability. In the context of referendum uncertainties that is just about acceptable. But all that was before June 2016.

In a post EU referendum world, fishing stability is out the wheelhouse window and has gone over the side.

The possibility of the UK controlling the access to massive tonnages of fish changes everything radically. Everything.

“The possibility of the UK controlling the access to massive tonnages of fish changes everything radically. Everything.”

The EU Withdrawal Bill will transpose everything into UK law – keeping it all the same including the legislations that favours the big quota holders. If this is not stopped by amending the EU Withdrawal Bill, the EU law which traps fishermen within an outdated unchangeable system will continue.

The method of Fixed Quota Allocations will be transposed wholesale, immediately creating a legal precedent that will be nigh on impossible to reverse. Those with largesse of Fixed Quota Allocations secured in their back pockets (because these are pieces of paper remember) will win beyond their wildest dreams, those without (the FQA impoverished) will lose forever.

The lottery win of the free fish raffle of the 90s now becomes the Euro lottery win of the century for all those that hold Fixed quota Allocations. At a stroke their allocations become stratospheric, their power over those without allocations increases and their ability to control the flow of quota and most importantly its price, becomes embedded forever.

There will be a UK OPEC of fishing allocations. The natural asset will as good as have been sold off. Without changing the status of fixed quota allocations through the EU Withdrawal Bill, control will be lost and a new precedent set.

If quota disappears into yet fewer hands the endgame is one company or individual holding it all –‘Emperor Cod’,  with absolute power to manipulate the price and engineer shut downs, buy-ups and  bankruptcies. Where will that leave fishermen in fishing towns, villages and independent family owned boats?

Those who are set to lose again are the fishermen who are actively working on boats, who retain a localised family business model, and who are ‘quota poor’. Along with them are the numerous smaller businesses and vessels starved of quota who seek a rebalancing of the entire system to fairly distribute the allocations among a greater number of boats.

Look at our nearest neighbours. Both Iceland and Norway radically changed their allocations systems both as a result of catastrophic crashes in fish stocks. However, both countries took a very different line. Iceland’s only natural resource was fish, they were poor and bankrupt, they had to get hard cash into the country fast and opted for a complete free market system in fish.

In Iceland the market is now in total control with fish as part of an international tradable quota system. This has consolidated quota into the hands of a handful of large companies who own the boats and the factories and employ the fishermen on a salary. It has worked in helping to turn round the Icelandic economy but with enormous social costs in the coastal communities outwith Reykjavik where, in the north and in the islands, factories closed and jobs lost with depopulation and depression following.

“Norway held on fiercely to the concept of fish as a natural resource to be exploited for the benefit of all the people of the country and this is strongly enshrined in the national psyche.”

Norway likewise suffered a catastrophic stock crash, in an economy which was highly reliant on fish pre oil and had to implement measures to rebuild stocks fast.

Both Scandanavian economies had to evolve a management system in emergency circumstances.  Norway held on fiercely to the concept of fish as a natural resource to be exploited for the benefit of all the people of the country and this is strongly enshrined in the national psyche.

The needs and challenges of keeping populations in viable work in remote coastal areas is part of the economic philosophy, rebalancing fishing access towards smaller boats and targeting progressive tax breaks to attract and retain remote populations.

Both Iceland and Norway levies their industry to fund independent scientific research to inform sustainable catching and management and hosts hundreds of researchers on fisheries.

The fortunate position that Scotland has is that it is not reacting to a stock crash. However one evaluates the health of fish stocks, in general Scottish stocks are healthy and fished sustainably in line with international scientific advice.  This is so different from both Iceland and Norway and the key factor in why the way forward in Scotland should be properly planned.

A measured transformation of the access to fish is possible. It is only whether the will to do so is there among political leaders and if they will be permitted in doing so in the face of the multi-national and multi-million pound interests that want to retain the status quo. Big business will not let go of its golden fish eggs without a fight.

There are two ways that this goes.

1. A vertical free market model where singular efficiency abdicates ownership and control of the asset to the market. Fisheries then goes in to fewer corporate hands,  there is greater automation, fewer employees and a concentration of downstream benefits in a couple of highly industrialised ports.

Fish slide down the slope into the free market model where control and accountability of the national asset is lost and ‘trickle down’ benefits from the wealthy table can only be hoped for but not assured.

2. Efficiency is defined as using natural assets to enable populations to remain and rebuild in depopulated and underinvested coastal communities creating work, taxes and confidence in modest doses to many participants. Indeed, from the few to the many.

A model that enables planned redistribution and sets collective ownership of the asset at its heart that can spread benefit widely.

The two choices are stark because one leads inevitably to the extreme of not just a commercial asset but the very food of a population being owned by others who are solely driven by profit and eschew any stake in society.

“A model that enables planned redistribution and sets collective ownership of the asset at its heart that can spread benefit widely.”

A consultation by the Scottish Government just ended on the landing of fish in to the UK ports.No matter that the deadline has past, it is still worth understanding what this is about and what it means.

It places a restriction on the percentage of fish that can be landed abroad and cautiously formalises an existing situation where the majority of Scottish boats already land most of their fish into Scotland. That fish is eaten here, processed here and provides jobs here.

The largest and most powerful part of the sector are of course unhappy, they want to go wherever they wish to get the highest price irrespective of whether or not it starves a factory of regular supply and puts workers on short hours. It is the landings from this, the largest and wealthiest part of the sector, that could see regulated supply, all round factory jobs and other secondary benefits help the Scottish economy rather than dispose of the opportunity abroad.

Reading this, especially if you live in the central belt, you may feel that this has nothing to do with you. But if the market and the interests of greed dictate that fish is landed outside Scotland it means the consequences for onshore jobs are unstable.

A scenario could evolve where big business follow the biggest profits and lands every fish it catches outside Scotland, in effect removing any opportunity for the natural national asset to work in the interests of the country.

Can Scots wherever they live, and especially in the conurbations where they sit miles from a fishing harbour, really allow this to happen? Dont be ‘sea blind’ because right now there is every chance that your asset could slip away from right under our noses.

One step in stopping this is to take a minute to look at this consultation and alert your politicians to what is happening all around. You have every right because if you live in Scotland you are a current shore side share owner in the asset.

Time to wake up, smell the fish, and take back control.