The Fisherman's Friend

The following speech was delivered to the Conservative Ladies' Christmas Luncheon in Broughty Ferry on Saturday 7 December.

Ladies, it is always a great pleasure to speak at one of your luncheons and I am particularly pleased to have been invited to address your Xmas luncheon, because I have a couple of real Xmas stories to tell you.

During November I was travelling a great deal. Firstly, in my capacity as Senior vice President of the Fisheries Committee, I had to go to Vietnam and Laos to meet government ministers and fish farmers. Europe is only 40% self-sufficient in fish products and we have rising consumer demand from our 500 million citizens, so we have to rely on imports of good, reliable sources of clean, hygienically processed fish from outside the EU. We currently import around 150,000 tonnes a year of Pangasius from Vietnam. Pangasius is a kind of freshwater catfish, sold in our supermarkets as Vietnamese Cobbler or Panga Fish. The fish farms and processing factories I have visited in the Mekong Delta are amongst the cleanest and best I have seen anywhere in the world.

In neighbouring Laos, which is a desperately poor country run by a Communist military dictatorship, they would like to emulate the success of Vietnam. But they need help. They need expertise and equipment. They need training and education. Again I met with government ministers and they took me to see some small hatcheries and fish farms which produce fish for domestic consumption, because although Laos is a completely landlocked country, more than half the citizens’ diet is fish.

In the capital, Vientiane, the British Ambassador told me that I should go North to Luang Prabang and look up a fish farmer called Andrew Hepburn. I took his advice and uncovered a remarkable and heart-warming tale.

Andrew Hepburn is a wiry fisherman from Fraserburgh, with a smile as warm as a Scottish welcome. To find him in the steaming jungles of Indochina is something of a surprise! He runs an aquaculture hatchery in Northern Laos, producing over one and a half million tilapia per year, a popular, tropical freshwater fish that grows rapidly and is highly palatable, making it the preferred ‘chicken’ of the tropical fish-farming sector. The tilapia are reared from spawn to fingerling size and then distributed to local villagers, who rear them to maturity, in the multitude of ponds and creeks that litter the lush landscape near Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang, is the old capital of Laos. It is comprised of a fascinating sprawl of French colonial buildings, interspersed with Buddhist temples and Laotian houses, nestling on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. Laos is a landlocked, socialist republic governed by a single party communist politburo, dominated by military generals. One third of the population of 6.5 million people live below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day.

Motivated by an urge to help the poor to set up their own successful enterprises, Andrew runs the tilapia hatchery as a social enterprise, selling the fingerlings at a price starting from 50 kip (0.4 pence) that just covers his costs and no more. He employs thirteen staff and students, paying above average wages for villagers in Laos, ranging from $80 to $200 per month. His philosophy is simple and is based on the old adage – “If you give a man a fish, he can feed his family for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he can feed his family for a lifetime.”

Andrew was the skipper of a prawn trawler – ‘The Saltire (BF34)’ - in Fraserburgh. He also part-owned a small prawn processing plant in Macduff. A keen golfer who liked to travel, he found himself one day in the Philippines, playing over neatly manicured greens on a new course built next to slums. He explains how he stared in horror at the poverty and deprivation of the people living on the other side of the high, security fence that surrounded the new golf course. The yawning gap between rich and poor was horribly apparent. It was the starting point to a life-changing decision, which led him to help the poor to help themselves through education and enterprise.

Encountering all sorts of barriers trying to set up the businesses in Lao People’s Democratic Republic, they managed to rent a small bit of land and build the tilapia hatchery. Learning the Lao language was a huge hurdle to cross to start with, as no-one in the remote jungle villages speaks any English. His wife Naomi, a Cornish doctor with a PHd in agricultural science has been a big help especially with the technical side of the business. The fingerlings are in huge demand, so much so that they will open a new hatchery soon in another province of Laos near the border with Thailand, where they will rear an additional one million fish per year. He is also experimenting with a new cage project in which he hopes to raise tilapia to maturity, helping those that don’t have land for fish-ponds.

Tilapia is a mouth breeding species from which you can harvest the eggs from the mouths of the female fish. Using a highly innovative technique developed in the early 80s by Professor Dave Little of Stirling University’s Aquaculture Institute who was the main researcher, the process enables them to produce 95%+ male small fry for growing on to the fingerling stage; male tilapia grow faster and mature more quickly than the females, which put most of their energy into egg production.

Andrew’s boundless energy and enthusiasm does not end here. They are starting a new UK charity called ‘FISH AID’, which will focus on income generating aquaculture projects in developing countries as a way of combating poverty and hunger, based on their experience and success in Laos. Andrew points to the fact that more than half the protein diet of the people of Laos comes from fish; despite the fact that Laos is a landlocked country, every Laotian eats around 30 kg of fish and aquatic products like frogs, snails and crabs, per year, compared to an average of 20 kg per person in Europe.

A World Fish Center report a few years ago found there are more fish produced per metre in the Mekong River than in the North Sea, but with a growing population and greater demand for fish, even the mighty Mekong will not be able to meet the needs of the people of Indochina. The government of Laos wish to double aquaculture production from 100,000 tonnes to 200,00 tonnes per year and Tilapia will have a central role in this process.

Fraserburgh may be almost 9,000 miles from Luang Prabang, but UK fishermen’s skills can be used anywhere in the world to bring aid to the poor. That makes it a journey worth undertaking for anyone.


I was no sooner back from Vietnam and Laos, than I had to go to Iraq. In my capacity as President of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq, it was essential that I visited Syrian refugee camps and discussed the country’s worsening human rights situation and persecution of minorities with senior political leaders.

I travelled to Erbil in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, where I met with the Kurdistan Regional Government's President Masoud Barzani and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. I also met with leading Christian bishops, the Grand Mufti of Iraq’s Sunni faith and members of the Iraqi Parliament, including the Chairman of its Human Rights Committee, as well as leaders of the recent popular uprisings in six Sunni provinces against the Baghdad Government.

In Erbil, I was invited to address a major conference organised by the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Christians, which over 850 people attended. The conference debated the gradual erosion of Iraq's ancient Christian community, which has now dwindled from 1.5 million to an estimated 300,000. One of the oldest Christian communities in the world, which can trace its origins back to the time of Christ, now faces extinction because of virtual ethnic cleansing and constant vicious bombings, assassinations and kidnappings. The autonomous region of Kurdistan is the only safe haven for Christians and many other ethnic minorities who have found themselves under constant attack in Iraq.

Kurdistan has a tradition of providing a safe haven for refugees and I was able to visit some massive camps where Syrians, fleeing from the civil war in their country, have been given food and shelter. But it is a sad indictment of the Government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, that none of the aid money he promised the Kurds has ever materialised. I visited Kawergocek refugee camp near Erbil where 13,000 Syrian men, women and children have been living since August. The Kurdistan Regional Government and UNHCR have done amazing work in setting up a series of emergency camps in a very short period, to provide food and shelter for these people. But with winter approaching, there is an urgent need for additional aid to provide tent linings, stoves, heaters, winter clothing and more food. The EU must send aid directly to the UN and NGOs like ‘Save the Children’ who are actively helping the Syrian refugees in Iraq.

I heard many complaints against against Maliki during my visit. Again and again I was told by representatives of many diverse religious faith and ethnic minorities and even from the larger Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities, how Maliki's sectarian government has become deeply unpopular. Leaders of the popular uprisings in six Sunni provinces told me that the wave of terror, which has claimed the lives of 7,000 people so far this year in Iraq, is his responsibility, because he controls the military, the police, the intelligence services and all aspects of security in the country. Iraq is rapidly spiralling towards a renewed insurgency and Maliki's only response is to marginalise the Kurds, label the Sunnis as terrorists and turn a blind-eye to the systematic discrimination and violence against other ethnic minority groups.

I raised the question of the horrific massacre of 52 Iranian refugees in Camp Ashraf on September 1st and the abduction of seven hostages, six of them women, who have not been seen since. Maliki denies all knowledge of these appalling crimes against defenceless refugees, but it is clear that such an orchestrated and savage assault could never have been planned and executed without his direct involvement. I asked leading politicians in Iraq to intervene without delay to ensure the immediate release of these hostages, who are being held in Baghdad as has been confirmed recently by Amnesty International. In my numerous meetings I realised that there is a strong revulsion amongst the Arab and Kurdish politicians towards this massacre, which they repeatedly described as a crime against humanity and an insult to Arabic-Kurdish traditions of hospitality.

But it is the plight of the Iraqi Christians that gives me most cause for concern, particularly at this time of year, as Christmas looms. Iraq’s Christians belong to the Chaldean, Assyrian, Armenian and a few Catholic Churches. Iraqi Christians under Saddam Hussein lived in relative security and practiced their religion freely, indeed some of Saddam’s senior government ministers, including his foreign minister – Tariq Al-Aziz, were Christian. However, after the occupation of Iraq by the US, their situation changed dramatically and they were labeled as ‘crusaders’ by Islamic extremists and militant groups.

Most of the Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans and follow the Eastern Catholic Orthodox Church. They are separate from the Vatican but accept the Pope’s spiritual leadership. Human rights organizations have reiterated that 75% of Iraq’s Christians left Iraq after the 2003 occupation. A large number of them have gone to foreign countries and those who have stayed are terrified of going to church on Sundays or observing various other religious holidays. The Freedom of Religion Commission in the US, in its May 2007 report, said more than half of Iraq’s Christian minority had left the country at that time due to threats by extremists and militants. The report suggested that the Christians had become targets of racial discord and a pre-planned eradication by the Iraqi government, local officials and paramilitary forces. This report added that Islamic extremists had attacked various liquor stores, hair salons and various projects run by Christians under the pretext that they were guilty of violating the sovereignty and Islamic guardianship of Iraq.

One of the most horrific manifestations of this campaign of violence was the bombing of the large Greek Orthodox Virgin Mary Church in Baghdad on 1st November 2010. On that day two car bombs exploded near the church, then armed men stormed into the crowded building and began taking hostages. 52 people were subsequently killed and 67 others were wounded in the botched rescue operation aimed at freeing the hostages. Many people believed that the rescue attempt by Iraqi military forces, acting on the orders of Prime Minister Al Maliki, was in fact a deliberate operation to wipe out the Christian hostages. In any case, the incident triggered a mass exodus of Christian, with thousands heading out of Baghdad to Kurdistan or further afield to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the EU, US, Australia and New Zealand.

Although the Iraqi Constitution guarantees the protection of minorities and states that it will defend a multi-faith society, in reality the government of Nouri al-Maliki looks the other way when acts of terror or repression against Christians take place and as a result, the perpetrators know they can act with impunity. Imams in Friday prayers mock minorities and stir up hatred and anger, so that their mostly illiterate congregation go out as a mob after prayers and attack the homes and businesses of Christians with sticks and clubs, in acts that often flare into lethal violence”.

Sadly, despite the fact that Iraq was once the cradle of civilization, it is now a dustbowl of violence and bloodshed. The Syrian conflict has poured petrol on the flames, with tens of thousands of refugees swarming over the border to the relative safety of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. But insufficient aid is reaching the Kurdish Regional Government to help these refugees and despite all of its oil wealth, the government in Baghdad is doing little or nothing.

Billions of dollars in oil and gas income are simply disappearing into illicit bank accounts, with most of the population having only around 4 hours electricity daily and limited access to clean water or functioning sewerage systems. In a country that used to win prizes for education there is 60% illiteracy. Unemployment is now running at over 18% and with more than half the population under the age of 25, many young Iraqis are being tempted to take the law into their own hands. The reaction of the government is to increase oppression. State-condoned torture and mass executions are now commonplace.

It was the US and the UK - George W. Bush and Tony Blair - who invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam, declaring ‘Mission accomplished’. They boasted that they had left behind ‘a functioning democracy’, when in fact they have left behind a basket case. There is still time for the West to reassert its authority and make amends for its disastrous intervention in Iraq. Obama, Ashton & Ban Ki Moon must tell Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that this whirlwind of bloodshed, violence, corruption and abuse will no longer be tolerated. They must tell him that the economic umbilical cord to the West will be severed unless he gets his act together. Iraq must become a country where Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Shabaks, Jews, Turkmen and all ethnic communities can live in freedom, peace and prosperity. This is the future we all hope and pray for.