Liz Truss as our new prime minister is going to inherit the poisoned chalice of spiralling inflation, soaring energy costs, strikes, a climate change emergency and the war in Ukraine. Who would want the job? The rapidly escalating price of food will play a key part in the cost-of-living crisis and she will have to devote some attention to the Scottish fishing industry’s major role in that process. The fishing industry in Scotland is of much greater social, economic, cultural and even political importance than it is anywhere else in the UK. Although Scotland has only 8.2% of the UK population, over 60% of the UK’s total fish and shellfish catch is landed in Scottish ports. The annual value of landings of around 400,000 tonnes of sea fish and shellfish to the Scottish economy is over £487million.

Back in the 1970s, the Scottish fleet was landing over 300,000 tonnes of cod alone every year. But landings on that scale were wholly unsustainable. By the 1990s, cod stocks and indeed stocks of other key demersal or groundfish species in the North Sea had all but collapsed. This was the reason why the EU’s unloved Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was forced to introduce endless regulations and controls to try to save the industry, with de-commissioning schemes that encouraged many struggling skippers to scrap their vessels, halving the size of the fleet and the number of fishermen in Scotland. 

But today, our diminished fleet is facing the double whammy of massive fuel costs, combined with a shrinking area of sea in which they are allowed to operate. The soaring cost of oil and gas has resulted in a race to find alternatives and the Scottish government has been quick to encourage a significant expansion of offshore renewables, primarily wind, but also involving tidal and wave systems. Combined with strict conservation measures and the push for Highly Marine Protected Areas (HPMA’s), where fishing will be banned, particularly by scallop dredgers and prawn trawlers, there are fears in the industry that over 56% of Scottish waters could be out of bounds for Scotland’s fleet by 2050. 

A recent expert report commissioned by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) estimated that with at least 10% of Scottish waters being designated as HMPA’s and large areas zoned for renewables, there could be up to 260,000km2 (56% of Scottish waters) lost to commercial fishing within the next twenty-five years.  It is reckoned that almost half of this area will be lost to fishing within the next eight years, adding drastically to the current food security crisis, while threatening the survival of fishing businesses and causing severe harm to coastal communities. The report points out that the pace of change has been precipitous, as access to around one-third of Scottish waters is already restricted to fishermen, while only around 1% was closed to fishermen in the year 2000.

Similar moves have compelled European fishermen to contemplate court action against the European Commission, over plans to ban trawling, longlining and other fishing gears in up to 94 Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s) in areas deeper than 400 meters across the EU, including a large swathe in Irish waters. Increasing competition for space is putting extreme pressure on the fisheries sector and accelerating price rises for fish. Adding to the overall crisis is the decision of the UK government in July to impose a 35% tariff on Russian seafood imports, as part of a range of sanctions against Russia in response to their illegal and savage invasion of Ukraine. The UK imported over 430,000 tonnes of whitefish last year. Russia controls 45% of the global supply of whitefish, so the UK tariff will have a huge impact on seafood businesses who will now seek alternative sources of supply. Britain’s popular fish and chip shops may be forced to use different species and the price of fish suppers are likely to soar.

The SNP/Green coalition government’s determination to achieve net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045 will lead to the industrialisation of Scotland’s seascape, virtually enclosing and surrounding the entire country from Berwickshire up the East coast to Shetland and back down the West coast to the Solway, with massive offshore wind projects.Fishermen in many parts of Scotland say their world-renowned shellfish grounds will be wrecked by the excavation and construction of industrial wind turbines and wave and tidal systems, while demersal and pelagic trawlers will be forced to relocate. Like their colleagues in the EU they are crying out in anger and wondering what to do next.

Rather than hurling threats and insults at each other, surely there must be ways in which the energy giants and the fisheries sector could work compatibly with each other. For example, rather than driving fishermen out of offshore windfarms, the infrastructure required on the seabed for industrial wind turbines could be adapted in ways that could enhance the recovery of whitefish and shellfish species, which could then be harvested by small vessels. In addition, the energy companies are paid millions in constraint payments when they are told to switch off their turbines because the national grid is overloaded. Rather than paying them for not producing electricity, could they not be paid to use surplus renewable energy for producing and storing hydrogen through electrolysis. The hydrogen could then be sold to the fishing industry at subsidised rates to encourage them to convert their diesel engines to CO2 emission free hydrogen fuel cells. Rather than shouting angrily against the encroachment of windfarms around our coasts, we should adopt the policy of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!”