01 December 2005

S2M-3657 Fisheries

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 1 December 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

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The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-3657, in the name of Ross Finnie, on sea fisheries.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I will begin by delineating a number of areas where there is fairly clear agreement. I can find something to agree with in each of the propositions that have been put forward by the various political parties. In particular, I highlight Ross Finnie's commendation of the FRS scientists. That illustrates something very important: that we have the skills, the talent and the ability to deploy research scientists for the benefit of the industry and of the natural environment. I will come back to that later.

Phil Gallie, unexpectedly, showed me that we have something very important in common. If I understood him correctly, our maiden speeches were both on fishing. I made my maiden speech 1,645 days ago on 14 June 2001. I worked that out during those parts of the debate that have been a little tedious. However, I have risen to the challenge and I intend to change the tone.

Ted Brocklebank's amendment is largely sensible, but he spoils it at the end by moving on to matters beyond the Parliament's remit—I am surprised that, as a unionist, he does that. The amendment talks about local control of UK waters, over which we have no influence whatever and over which SNP members do not particularly wish to have influence. That is a shame about the amendment, but there we are.

Now freed from the burdens of office, Jim Wallace made a particularly interesting contribution when he spoke of the crucial role of the Norway-EU negotiations, which significantly determine our fishermen's access to the haddocks in the North sea. He may of course wish to consider that that perfectly illustrates the point that another model is available for how countries with significant fishing interests interact with the European Union in ensuring that their national interest is progressed.

On balance, we cannot support the Greens' amendment, but it nonetheless addresses a vital issue—discards. Frankly, that the European Union and countries in the common fisheries policy have failed meaningfully to engage on that issue over the years is a shame with which we are all tainted, because that involves a key distinction between how the European Union seeks to manage fish stocks through the common fisheries policy and the approach of the small nations to our north—Iceland and the Faroes. The Greens make a valid point by bringing discards to the debate, albeit in a context with which we disagree.

There is heartening news on something that I have, since I first spoke on fishing, banged on about, as have others—the industrial fisheries, which are prosecuted largely by the Danes. We are seeing some retrenchment from the predations of the more than 1 million tonnes that they had as a quota in the not too distant past to a situation in which the effect of their industrial fishery is felt so strongly that, at last, the food that cod and haddocks eat—sprats, sand eels and pouts—are protected because they are scarce. That is because the ecology of the North sea—like that of all seas—interacts at every point of action with other points. The relative withdrawal of the Danish industrials is a welcome development that I think will be commended throughout the chamber.

At the core of the debate is a difficult and fundamental clash, to which Tommy Sheridan referred, between science, the interests of science, the objectivity of scientists and communities' needs. Until we find a way to join communities' interests to scientists' discussions, we will probably have a more sterile debate than that which we must have if we are to act responsibly and create a sustainable future for our communities.

Robin Harper: The member mentioned the interests of scientists. What does he mean by that?

Stewart Stevenson: If I said that, I meant the objectivity of scientists—I am obliged if I used the wrong word—because objectivity is the point. Communities have an economic and emotional response to the problems—that is a proper interest—whereas scientists respond objectively. However, the science has a difficulty. We are like somebody prospecting for oil: we drill a few oil wells in the hope of discovering something about what is at the bottom of the hole, but we never understand the whole system. We see only a very small amount of what is going on. Scientists are challengeable.

Phil Gallie: Would the member say that the evidence of fishermen in the Clyde over the past 10 years, and more recent evidence from fishermen in the North sea about haddock, has been much more reliable than the scientific evidence?

Stewart Stevenson: The voice of practitioners who are engaging with the ecology and the stock must be heard. That is precisely why we made the point that fishermen, with their experience and understanding, should be much closer to the decision-making process. We welcome the minister's response to a point that we have made repeatedly, as have others. We are grateful that we have had a response.

I turn to costs more generally. I have a note that shows that in December 2003 a litre of fuel was 15.7p, currently it is 28p and last month it was 32.1p. The Spaniards are over-subsidising by more than six pence a litre. They will be slapped down by the European Union and the Spanish Government will be fined, but the fishermen have had and will retain the economic advantage that has come from something that their Government should probably not be doing.

I will end with a quote from a fisherman, who said:

"This year will be remembered as the year when most white-fish boats improved their top line gross, but finished with less profit, no profit, or with the feeling that it's time to get out—and not because of lack of fish on the grounds. The ever-increasing price of fuel, and poor TACs that have been cut continually over the past year, have created the situation of buying quota, leasing quota and, unbelievably, buying days to work."

We need change now and we hope that the minister can move the game up the park.


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