“Dismay” at proposed fishing reforms
By Tim Hirsch
BBC environment correspondent in Edinburgh
25th March 2004
The study is facing widespread criticism in Scotland for being based on flawed research
The UK fishing industry faces a crossroads in the radical reforms and cuts being suggested in a major report on Thursday.
The prime minister's strategy unit has spent the last year looking at whether British sea fishing has a long-term future as a profitable industry, or is doomed to a state of perpetual crisis.
The study's conclusions are that it has the potential to make far more money than at present - but only if the industry embraces major change backed up by government reforms in the management of fish stocks.
Tony Blair's advisers point out that parts of the fleet such as the mackerel boats in some areas and the shellfish sector already make decent profits.
The big problem is with the trawlers, sailing mainly from Scottish ports, chasing white fish such as North Sea cod - said by marine scientists to be perilously close to a state of collapse.
It is for this fleet which the strategy unit is recommending further cuts of 13% to enable it to land fish at competitive prices without further damaging stocks.
Given that the Scottish industry has already scrapped around half of its fleet, it is not surprising that this recommendation is causing dismay amongst many groups in Scotland.
The strategy unit says that UK fishermen will face increasing competition from other parts of the world where major reforms have already taken place - and believes similar steps should be taken here.
In New Zealand and Iceland, for instance, quotas are attached to individual vessels rather than collective fleets, giving greater incentives for fishermen to look after the long-term health of the stocks - and to stick to the rules.
The report argues that the highly-centralised system of setting EU quotas from Brussels should be replaced by regional fisheries management which would make decisions based on genuine conservation needs, rather than the annual bartering which takes place amongst ministers, often in the middle of the night, and it favours a move towards a system operated in the Faroe Islands in which stocks are conserved through "effort control" - the number of days fishermen can spend at sea - rather than quotas based on tonnes of individual fish species.
That should help prevent the ludicrous situation in which large quantities of dead fish are thrown overboard because a vessel has reached the limit of its legal quota.
Environmental groups are delighted at the conclusions of the report, especially its emphasis on the link between sustainable fishing and long-term profits.
The study points out that many big fisheries around the world are attempting to get their products certified with an "eco-label" from the Marine Stewardship Council which guarantees to consumers that stocks are not being over-fished.
This can give a clear market advantage as supermarkets and producers of processed fish are keen to offer their customers the assurance that their products are not damaging the environment.
The strategy unit says key UK fish stocks should aspire to achieve MSC certification by 2015.
For Thursday's report to become anything more than a piece of theoretical research, its recommendations will need to be embraced not just by UK ministers and the devolved governments, but by the EU and crucially the industry itself.
Judging by the furious reaction from Scottish fishing groups ahead of its publication - as well as the Scottish National Party and the Conservatives - that seems a tall order.
The study is facing widespread criticism in Scotland for being based on flawed research - with many claiming that its recommendations would sound the death knell for the industry, rather than providing the lifeline claimed by its authors.