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Fishing – blog #2

Written by Tom Wills

May 4, 2021

In these final few days, I’m trying to spend as much time as possible out and about, but I wanted to briefly expand on my previous fishing blog in response to some questions raised locally.

Let me start by acknowledging the obvious: the SNP supports re-entry to the European Union. If you are after an anti-Europe party, we are not it.

A closer relationship with Europe than the Tories have delivered is assumed by some to be necessarily a bad thing, yet pre-COVID, our local boats were doing better than ever – and Brexit has yet to deliver anything like the benefits promised.

Many local fishermen I speak to acknowledge this and are angry at the Tory sell-out, but they hope that in the long term, the benefits of Brexit will out. I understand the desire to be out of the CFP, but I do not believe that isolationism is the answer to this or any other problems of the 21st century.

I acknowledge that Brexit may lead to the catching sector catching somewhat more fish, but that is not the only metric I would use to measure the success of Brexit.

The fact is that there are other sectors and areas of life to consider and even if we only weigh up Brexit gains through a fishing lens, we still need to sell our fish into European markets. As we have seen, securing access to those markets involves negotiation and compromise – and this falters when we have a government that doesn’t make fishing a priority.

My honest view is that I am not convinced that the current situation is much better than it was pre-Brexit, and I am not convinced that on balance, it will get much better in a Brexit Britain led by perpetual Tory governments. You may disagree, but it should give us pause for thought that a small uplift in pelagic quota and a conveniently timed failure to reach a deal with Norway are the greatest tangible successes that can be pointed at so far.

I absolutely understand the frustrations with the CFP, but there are two main reasons why so much quota is owned by foreign vessels: the first is that the Tories sold out fishing in exchange for a deal on financial services when the UK entered the EU, and the second is that the UK has allowed ever-increasing amounts of quota to be held by an ever-smaller number of foreign multinational corporations.

This is an approach which has been led by successive UK Governments, not Scottish ones.

Fishing is far more important to Scotland than it is to the UK and of course it is even more important to us here in Shetland. That is the main reason why I think that long term, a combination of Scottish independence and more local control of Shetland waters is the best way to ensure the future growth and sustainability of our seafood sector.

As for our relationship with Europe, the SNP has opposed the European Common Fisheries Policy ever since it was first proposed, almost 50 years ago. As the owner of Europe’s richest fishing grounds, an independent Scotland would be in a very strong position to negotiate a good deal for our fishermen, if and when we resume our EU membership – and we would always have the option of an alternative relationship if the deal on fishing was not acceptable.

As Shetland’s MSP, I know that I would need to be on the right side of any votes on fishing and that I would be out on my ear soon afterwards if I wasn’t!

I do not believe that any Scottish Government (of whatever political stripe) would ever sell out the fishing industry like the UK Government did on the way into the EU under Ted Heath, and on the way out under Boris Johnson.

As regards this election on Thursday.

One fisherman who is frustrated with Marine Scotland has said that electing me would make no difference. I don’t underestimate the challenges, but I would say that you already know exactly how much difference a Lib Dem MSP would make.

Others are saying that they may vote Lib Dem to try and avoid another independence referendum. To them I would say that the independence question is not going to go away. The question for Shetland this Thursday is whether our interests are best served by having an MSP from a party as small and rudderless as the Lib Dems, or by having a Shetland representative inside the party of government.

If elected as your MSP I will press for more local control of local waters, for a ban on gill netters and for more of the fish caught around Shetland to be landed into our local markets. I will also work to ensure that our local seafood sector is front and centre of the SNP government’s mind when it comes to any future dealings with Europe.