Carmichael: Why is the fishing industry having to fight its own government for survival?

Alistair Carmichael knows more about fishing than most, as you would expect for someone representing an island constituency.

He knows how our fishermen have been completely sold down the river by the Brexit deal.

Yesterday, he stood up for fishermen and those in related industries in a Parliamentary debate which you can watch here.

He outlined some of the eye-watering losses suffered by the industry as a result of the Government failing to deliver on its promises.

Here is his speech in the debate:

Before turning to the business of today’s debate I want to say a few words about the recent and very sad passing of David Linkie, former editor of Fishing News.  David’s work on Fishing News was more than just journalism.  It was a mission to give a voice to the fishing industry and to the communities that depend on it.  I won’t claim to have agreed with every word he ever wrote but you don’t have to agree with someone to acknowledge their passion, sincerity and commitment and in David all that and more was shone through.  His contribution will be missed and I am sure that members from all parts of the House will want to send condolences to his family.

I hope that David would approve of what today’s debate is about.  It is about giving a voice to our fishing industries in parliament – industries that were promised so much by politicians from the Prime Minister downwards and who now look to him and them to deliver on what they promised.

When the holding of today’s debate was first announced I put out a call for evidence to hear the views of people in the industry and its associated sectors.  I anticipated a healthy response but even so I was astonished at the volume and content of what I received.  The e-mails came in from all around the coast.  From catchers, processors, engineers, traders – all with the same message.

The deal struck by the Prime Minister on Christmas Eve is not what they were promised and six months in to its first year it is causing massive problems.

One Shetland Skipper spoke for many when he wrote :

I run a small wooden 22 metre trawler around Shetland, we have a ridiculously small cod quota and we find it impossible to avoid cod, there is more cod around Shetland right now than anytime in living memory but our quota is minuscule. It has been said by skippers recently that you can catch your years quota in one day! There are also plans to cut the cod further in 2022, so it begs the question why are we still using the broken quota system the EU put in place now that we are an independent coastal state?

Magnus, a 19 year old fisherman from Whalsay who has plans to buy into a whitefish boat with a few close friends – so the future of this industry – asked,

“Why is the fishing industry having to fight their own government for survival? Why do their advisory boards have no qualified fishermen or ex fishermen or fish processors advising them? Why are they allowing uncontrolled fishing by foreign vessels in our waters?”

At the other end of the country in Cornwall a Skipper wrote to me, “as someone who has fished for 40 years from my home village of st.mawes in Cornwall.”

“There were 18 boats worked here when I started ,all with 2 or 3 crew and now we’re down to the last 2 trawlers, both working single-handedly due to the constant negativity surrounding the industry.

With Brexit we had a golden opportunity, the one and only chance to keep these vessels out to at least 12 miles, the meridian line would be the next goal but no, an unbelievably weak government has put us in a worse position than before.”

In coastal and island communities around the country the anger and frustration felt by fishermen is almost palpable.  They feel let down and used and they want answers.

At the start of the year we saw a catastrophic gridlock as exporters seeking to take advantage of what would traditionally be the busiest week of the first quarter were unable to get their fish to market on continental Europe.

Promises were made then that British businesses would be compensated for their losses.  I spoke to on local exporter in Shetland then who was looking at a loss in the region of £50,000.  He was not alone and the minister and the Secretary of State made big promises about compensation schemes.

How did that work?

Well, I spoke to the same person again yesterday.  He had sought to mitigate his loss by selling his fish at a much lower price on the domestic market and, in doing so, he managed to limit his losses to £20,000 rather than the £50,000 he had originally faced,  When he applied for help to meet that restricted loss, however, he was told that because he had done the responsible thing there would be no assistance for him.

If, when the minister promised help to exporters in January, she had meant that to qualify for that help they would have to leave their fish to rot then she really should have said so.

Processors have also been badly hit as a result of their inability to source the labour that they need to run their businesses.  One major processor in Peterhead told me a few weeks ago that he was constantly at least ten per cent down on the staffing levels that he needs.  That either means he is paying overtime to the staff he has or else has to restrict the range of work that he takes on.

What is the minister doing to ensure that the processing sector has access to the skilled labour that they need?

The deal that the Prime Minister did was deficient in many respects.  For the catching sector one of the most dramatic of these was the loss of easy access to in year quota swaps.  The Secretary of State assured us then that this was something that could easily be done on a government to government basis but as we enter the third quarter of the year, having only recently and finally established what quota entitlement is going to be we still do not know how that is going to work.

Can the minister tell us today when the industry might be told how they will get access to the extra quota that they need?  With every week that passes this becomes more urgent.

Another theme that came through loud and clear from fishermen in every part of the country was their unhappiness at the inequality of treatment when it comes to at sea boardings by fisheries enforcement officers.  In Scotland this is the responsibility of Marine Scotland for whom figures released under Freedom of Information requests show a massive disparity between the approach to UK boats and the French and Spanish fleets who are allowed to go about their business unmolested.  Why is that?  Is it, as was suggested to me that fisheries protection officers do not have the same access to real time catch data from foreign vessels as they do from UK boats?  Again the complaint is the same around the coast so it seems that what is true of Marine Scotland is also true of enforcement agencies south of the boarder.

The minister has heard me before speak about the practice of gill netting off the west of Shetland.  This is environmental lunacy.  It is just about the most unsustainable form of fisheries imaginable.  It contributes massively to the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans and excludes local boats from being able to fish several square miles of waters that have traditionally been some of their best grounds.  For years we were told that this was something that we had to live with as part of the Common Fisheries Policy.  That no longer applies so why do we still allow it?

The minister also knows, because I have told her, of the friction caused between local boats and these gill-netters.  I urged her at the time of the passing of the Fishing Act to give powers to the MCA to police the waters in our EEA between 12 miles and the 200 mile limit.  She knows how close the Alison Kay came to disaster in her encounter with the Spanish Gill Netter, the Pesorsa Dos.  I have to tell her that the situation continues to be bad and in fact is getting worse.

On Monday 28 June Ross David Robertson and his crew were operating on traditional grounds north of the islands when they were confronted by the Genesis FD 19, a 30 metre 298 tonne longliner, who crossed the bow and came within three metres of the 25 metre Mizpah.

He told The Fishing Daily “We are trying to fish on grounds to suit our quota allocation but can’t get fishing because of these vicious wolf packs chasing us off. The seamanship of these guys are totally horrendous. Put the fishing to the side on this matter, it’s the danger they put both vessels in that’s totally against the law,” says Ross.

Asked if he has experienced this before, Ross says that he has, and it is a growing concern for him and skippers across the fleet, but they are afraid that the authorities are not doing enough to protect the fleet and one day it will lead to a tragedy.

“Yes, it’s happening too often,” he said. “Last year another vessel did the same to us and I reported him to the Coastguard and MAIB but I didn’t hear any outcome, so I just presumed it was a waste of time.”

I have met the minister and officials from her department and others about this.  They all come out with lots of good and detailed reasons as to why this is awfully complicated and difficult to fix.  I have to say to her, however that these reasons no longer hold water.  Is it going to require a boat to go to the boat of the sea before someone takes responsibility and acts?

CHAIR – I am aware that I have taken a lot of time given to today’s debate.  There is a lot more still to say but that must be left to others.  In January I asked the Secretary of State if he would meet with me and industry representatives to discuss the problems facing the industry.  He ignored the request then and since so I make it again today.  Will the minister sit down with members and industry representatives?  Will she listen to us and engage?  If not then I fear that the anger and frustration that is in the industry is only going to grow.  Our fishing industry still is one that has enormous potential but to realise that potential requires political will.  Does the minister and her colleagues have that?

After the debate, he was unimpressed by the Minister’s failure to commit to a roundtable discussion with the industry:

“It took some effort to secure this debate – and the Government clearly had no interest in discussing fishing concerns unless forced – but it was an important opportunity to make our voices heard. The feeling the industry has of being ignored has only intensified over time as even some of the most basic issues they are raising – like safety at sea – are not being addressed.

“The dangerous behaviour of gillnetters and other non-local boats has only gotten worse and we have to wonder if it will take a boat going to the bottom of the sea before government will do something. It is simply not good enough.

“I note that the minister again sidestepped calls for a roundtable discussion with the industry. Based on the level of correspondence I received from around the UK that is not sustainable. I will continue collating these messages with a view to creating a report on post-Brexit fisheries. The minister has an open door to engage with this process – whether she does or not will speak volumes about this government’s priorities.”

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • The casual destruction of age-old coastal communities by a callous government which has its origin in the June 2016 referendum is a tragedy in its own right. But it also illustrates the continuing danger of populist politics. The voters in 2016 (including many fishermen) were misled by UE-hating MPs who were themselves ignorant of many of the facts about Brexit, but who also lied to get their cherished hobby-horse past the winning post. Some, including Johnson and Gove, simply saw a way to get Cameron out of Downing Street. Despite this, the sad truth is that populism has survived the ongoing series of revelations of Brexit damage. No-one likes to admit they were wrong.
    There can be little doubt that opinion polls are now the deciding factor when government policy is being scrutinised; if damage will be done, but potential Tory voters don’t care, why worry ? And I saw it claimed on Channel Four News last night that voters (including Lib Dem voters !) are in favour of the shameful cut in foreign aid – surely a lie, but not challenged by Krishan Guru-Murthi.
    Like the damage being done to farmers using traditional farming methods and the consequential impacts on the British countryside, the loss of our fishing communities will be hard to reverse. My own experience raising these issues on (urban) doorsteps on South Gloucestershire has been a disheartening example of out of sight, out of mind.
    The Liberal Democrat Party needs more speeches like Alistair’s, and needs to take the lead in reminding people that being a voter is not a ‘me first’ game. We have duties and responsibilities to others, including future generations, and we need to keep doing things which raise us above the self-seeking politics of populist Britain. Not that difficult, you’d think; the bar isn’t just low, it’s on the ground.

  • Andy Daer 14th Jul ’21 – 8:30am:
    And I saw it claimed on Channel Four News last night that voters (including Lib Dem voters !) are in favour of the shameful cut in foreign aid – surely a lie, but not challenged by Krishan Guru-Murthi.

    ‘Two thirds of Britons support cutting the foreign aid budget’ [November 2020]:

    New YouGov research conducted in the run-up to the announcement shows that two thirds (66%) say that reducing the amount spent on overseas aid is the right decision. Only 18% think it is the wrong call.

    The move is near-universally popular among Conservative voters, 92% of whom are in support. Support is lower among Labour and Lib Dem voters, but the move is still more popular than not: Labour voters back it by 44% to 37% and Lib Dem voters do so by 49% to 35%.

    Foreign aid spending levels have long been consistently unpopular with the British public, topping our tracker on what sector people think the government spends too much on by a wide margin.

  • Andy Daer 14th Jul ’21 – 8:30am:
    The casual destruction of age-old coastal communities by a callous government which has its origin in the June 2016 referendum is a tragedy in its own right.

    The destruction of our fishing communities started a long time before then – in 1970 to be precise. Before the UK joined the then EEC there was no mention of sharing fishing waters. The first rules were created in 1970. The original six Common Market members realised that the four countries applying to join the Common Market at that time (Britain, Ireland, Denmark including Greenland, and Norway) controlled the richest fishing grounds in the world. The original six members therefore drew up the Common Fisheries Policy giving all members equal access to all fishing waters, even though the Treaty of Rome did not explicitly include fisheries in its agriculture chapter. This was adopted on the morning of 30th. June 1970, a few hours before the applications to join were officially received. This ensured that the regulations became law before the new members joined, obliging them to accept the regulation. Norway decided not to join. They knew how to protect their fishing industry.

  • nigel hunter 14th Jul '21 - 10:05am

    Aljazeera has reported Johnson,s aid cuts so the World knows what is happening in the UK.We will be judged. To create a poverty atmosphere at home creates that ‘me firstism’ attitude and people are struggling to support themselves and do not see the wider view.False promises,lies entice people to think of a better life ahead and then are sadly disappointed.Get Brexit done was a sound bite. The details of what it REALLY means are now coming to the fore.

  • Peter Martin 14th Jul '21 - 10:12am

    The casual destruction of age-old coastal communities by a callous government which has its origin in the June 2016 referendum……

    It goes back much further than that. The Heath government, in the early 70s, gave away UK fishing rights to the then EEC to secure our membership. Nothing much changed until the CFP came into effect in the early 80s but by then British fishing vessels had lost access to traditional fishing grounds in Iceland and elsewhere.

    EEC membership meant that the UK was not allowed to expel foreign
    fishermen from nominally UK waters in the way Icelanders had expelled British vessels from theirs.

  • John Marriott 14th Jul '21 - 12:41pm

    The U.K. tried to out muscle Iceland over fishing rights and failed. The trawler owners preferred to sell their quotas to their partners in Europe rather than land the fish themselves. The U.K. government failed to play its part in modernising its fishing fleet unlike the other nations that signed up to the Common Fisheries Policy.

    We really only have ourselves to blame so stop knocking the EU. It ain’t perfect by any means but, when it comes to fish, remember the old song, “Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself”.

  • John Marriott 14th Jul ’21 – 12:41pm…

    Joining the EEC (EU) was the best thing for the fishing industry post the ‘cod wars’…With the loss of Icelandic waters we had, through the EU, access to the cod/haddock waters of Norway. There is little home appetite for the fish (Whiting, etc.) in our waters but the European market wants it..
    Leaving the EU means that we have problems selling OUR fish and our inept government managed to lose the fishing agreement with Norway; so a double whammy..

  • I wrote on this in 2012 Rock Salmon and Chips anyone The situation has worsened further since then with North Sea cod at critically low levels
    Incentivising fishermen to to leave their fish to rot so as to be able to claim compensation for losses is not much of a policy. State support needs to be focused on repurposing fishing fleets towards marine conservation and sustainable fishing practices. A healthy marine environment is a public good essential to life on earth. The environmental campaigner, George Monbiot, writing about the documentary Seaspiracy concludes:
    “It’s time to see the oceans in a new light: to treat fish not as seafood but as wildlife; to see their societies not as stocks but as populations; and marine food webs not as fisheries but as ecosystems.”
    Jeremy Percy, commenting on the 2012 article, pointed out the way forward:
    “I longlined for this species (spurdog) in the North Sea and English Channel for some years. We hand baited the hooks and importantly took the fish off by hand. It was, and still would be a sustainable fishery if there had been a form of differentiated management of the fishery.
    Unfortunately, there wasn’t and the influx of Autoliners, able to shoot and haul tens of thousands of hooks 24 / 7, together with miles of deep set nets resulted in a rapid decline that spurred the introduction of a Total Allowable Catch, followed by ever reducing quotas, followed by a complete ban.
    If on the other hand, fishing effort had been limited to low impact methods, i.e. long lining with hand baiting and manual fish removal [the point here is that taking fish off by hand slows down the hauling speed thereby restricting the amount of gear one can use, it also ensures that any fish discarded survive as the alternative ‘fish stripper’ device used on automatic systems simply pulls the hook between two round bars, tugging the hook from the fish and often taking the lower jaw with it. Fish then discarded have little effective chance of survival}.
    Where larger vessels can then steam off elsewhere to pursue other fish stocks, small scale local boats are just that, restricted in their ability to work very far from their home port and therefore dependent on the fish coming to them.
    Whilst it is clearly not in the interest of larger operators to have any form of differentiated management, access to fish stocks, i.e. quota, based on impact, rather than quasi historic rights and economic muscle would be a good first step towards rewarding those who fish sustainably and whose socio-economic and environmental credentials deserve better recognition and reward.”

  • Alistair, in the debate, notes “Processors have also been badly hit as a result of their inability to source the labour that they need to run their businesses.”
    This has been a longstanding issue worsened by Brexit. The BBC reporting in 2019 noted that a seafood company is sending UK-caught crabs on a 20,000-mile round trip to Asia because it cannot find enough staff to handpick them at home Crabs caught in UK picked in Vietnam due to staff shortage. The Sun, reporting in 2020, notes FISH caught off Britain are being sent on gas-guzzling 10,000-mile treks to China and back before being sold in UK supermarkets A CODYSSEY Fresh fish caught off Britain goes on 10,000-MILE round trip before being sold in UK supermarkets
    It is not just fish processors. Last month The Grocer magazine wrote that Food shortages now ‘inevitable’ due to labour crisis, industry warns
    “Chronic driver shortages have been compounded by shortfalls across other low-paid sectors including harvesting, manufacturing and packaging, and the supply chain is creaking under the pressure.”
    “Meat processors are similarly struggling to fulfil orders. The British Meat Processors Association said this week that some processors have lost 10% of their workforce and were now about two weeks away from cutting deliveries to retailers.”

  • Barry Lofty 14th Jul '21 - 2:59pm

    No need to worry everyone it’s what’s called ” Taking back control”?? I admit to not having any answers to this problem only bewilderment as to how we managed to get ourselves in such a mess?

  • Matt Wardman 16th Jul '21 - 10:57pm

    To add.

    I took the trouble to listen to the debate in Parliament – all 90 minutes of it.

    It was excellent, and a rather mealy-mouthed reply from the Minister.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Peter Hirst 17th Jul '21 - 4:03pm

    This government is the worst possible to protect our fishing industry post Brexit. There are not many votes involved, the places effected are not mostly Conservative ones and the importance of it to coastal communites is lost to them. Communities matter and ways of life in these often remote localities do not change rapidly.

  • Peter Martin 18th Jul '21 - 1:29pm

    “…….a seafood company is sending UK-caught crabs on a 20,000-mile round trip to Asia because it cannot find enough staff to handpick them at home ”

    I just wonder what the economics of this process involves. How much are workers paid in Vietnam or China to process the crabs? How much is spent on transport costs? How does this compare to a domestic process?

    I’m sure I could find as many workers as this seafood company requires and in the UK too. But they’d need to pay somewhat more in labour than they might be currently budgeting for.

    One of the basic principles of economics is that there is a natural shortage of everything , and everyone, who or which might have some market value. We might all be complaining there was a “shortage” of bread if we were only prepared to pay 50p per loaf.

  • Joe Bourke 14th Jul ’21 – 2:30pm:
    The BBC reporting in 2019 noted that a seafood company is sending UK-caught crabs on a 20,000-mile round trip to Asia because it cannot find enough staff to handpick them at home…

    Still picking by hand using cheap imported labour? This sort of short-term thinking is why UK productivity is low and housing costs high. Crab picking machines have been available for decades…

    The “Quik Pik” crab picker:

    Responding to a shortage of skilled crab pickers, J. Clayton Brooks, along with business associates Calvert Tolley and Ted Reinke, invented the world’s first automatic crab picking machine. Named the “Quik Pik”, it was patented in 1973 after 10 years of perfecting the mechanized picking process. At one time, 25 businesses from Florida to Maryland were using the Quik Pik to pick their crabs. Although the choice, high-prized lump or backfin meat must still be picked by hand, the Quik Pik is still employed at Clayton’s to efficiently remove crabmeat from the shell. This remarkable machine picks at a speed of 100 pounds of crabmeat per hour. It would take 25 workers to hand pick at the same rate.

  • The company in question – Blue Sea food says “they did all they could to get local workers into the business, but its “really tough getting people through the door”.
    A case study of the business notes “it has never been easy to find staff to work in our business, however, with the weak pound and Brexits insistence to reduce immigration this problem will only increase. Minimum wages are increasing by 4.4% this year but we will have to increase wages across the team by at least this amount in order to compete for labour. Other avenues we are exploring include outsourcing some process overseas.”
    Vietnam is becoming a preferred location for multi-nationals. Samsung, the Korean electronics giant, has relocated production of its TV screens from China to Vietnam. Brooks running, the US footwear company is also moving production there
    It is not simply labour intensive activities that Vietnam is attracting. The country is developing its facilities for the manufacturing of electronics, computers and optical products

  • @Andy Daer – “The casual destruction of age-old coastal communities by a callous government which has its origin in the June 2016 referendum is a tragedy in its own right. “
    Sorry, its origin was in the original 1975 EEC membership negotiations, 2016 was just the beginning of another kicking. Both were due to the ineptitude of Westminster.

    @Peter Martin
    “I’m sure I could find as many workers as this seafood company requires and in the UK too. But they’d need to pay somewhat more in labour than they might be currently budgeting for.”

    Perhaps you should offer your services…

    However, your point nicely exposes one of several conundrums at the heart of Brexit.

    One of the arguments put forward was that Brexit would somehow enable the UK – freed from the burden of EU regulations and tariffs – to tap into the world of ever-cheaper food imports and tough on UK farmers/producers if they can’t compete. However, as we know from the analysis this viewpoint contradicted the views of many who voted Leave in 2016, who wanted greater investment in UK communities and pre- 1997 residents, which in turn would mean better pay and more expensive food (and goods).
    The sad thing is that we currently have a large pool of underutilised residents, so any policy that doesn’t address this is not fit for purpose. So I support the principle behind your offer, getting UK residents into doing work that previously was deemed suitable for foreign workers…

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