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Dec 9 2004

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,172-1393178,00.html

Broken hearts. Broken boats. And broke

Magnus Linklater

This report is just another chapter in the tragic story of the destruction of our fishing fleet

FIFTY MILES off Cape Wrath, in crashing seas, a £20 million trawler is hauling in tons of herring. The nets disgorge their glittering harvest, pouring it into the hold of the good ship Forever Grateful like silver bullion. A species once thought to have vanished from Britain’s coastal waters, fished out of existence in the 1970s, is back, an export trade worth millions, destined for the sushi bars of Tokyo and up-market restaurants in Moscow, where herring is more highly prized than caviar.

Just around the coast, however, in the eastern port of Fraserburgh, there is a different story. Sandy West, a fifth-generation fisherman, watches as his boat, the Steadfast, heads off to the breaker’s yard. The latest cod quota from Brussels, and a heavy letter from the bank, have consigned the family business, to ruin.

Gutted is the title of a powerful documentary directed by David Peat that charts the decline and possible death of an industry which supports some 40,000 jobs in Scotland alone, but which is being asked this week to commit collective suicide. A report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is demanding that 30 per cent of the North Sea’s fishing areas must be closed to British fleets. That would mean more boats being broken up, more jobs lost, more of those granite towns which cling on to a precarious existence, consigned to an uncertain future. “We could become the first island in history to sacrifice its fishing industry,” says one of the crew of the Steadfast. “It is just heartbreaking to see.”

The report this week, though by an independent and British-based body, follows years of short-sighted management and a disastrous breakdown in trust between the industry and the European organisation that governs it. While the Government has paid fishermen to tie up and ultimately destroy their boats, in Spain and France they are commissioning ever larger trawlers to fish the deep seas of the Atlantic, where cold-water coral reefs are being destroyed, putting at risk species of fish that may never recover. Meanwhile, off the north coast of Scotland, herring and mackerel are making a comeback, and stocks of haddock are high. So while a few large trawlers haul in enormous profits, the bulk of the industry faces disaster.

The body that is meant to make sense of all this, to lay down clearly understood and accepted rules, to ensure that no species is over-fished, and to guarantee the future of the industry, is the grandly named International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), based in Brussels. Over the years, however, it has lost the confidence of British fishermen because of interventions which have proved ruinous and a short-sighted approach dictated more by politics than by science.

In 1998 the ICES, believing that certain stocks of cod were recovering, recommended an unexpected increase in total allowable catches, with the result that numbers went into the sharpest decline in a decade. Just at a point where they might have been conserved for the long-term future, cod stocks were hammered. New quotas were hastily introduced, resulting in the most savage cutbacks so far, with 69 boats, each of which had cost more than £1 million, and which were among the most modern in Scotland, being broken up. The fleet has now lost 60 per cent of its boats.

It was an unnecessary tragedy because, as most fishermen knew full well, stocks of cod would, if properly conserved, eventually recover — and meanwhile there were enough haddock and other fish to keep them in business. A more clear-sighted, science-based and long-term management policy could have put the industry on a sensible footing. Instead, a system of annual quotas is used, which have become, over the years, the subject of fraught negotiations between ministers and European bureaucrats.

The standard view in Brussels is that Britain’s fishermen have only themselves to blame, that they have been guilty of greed and that they have brought cod in particular to the edge of extinction. There is some truth in this, but at the same time those who venture out into the North Sea know more about the state of the fishing grounds than most commission scientists, and their expertise is a resource that could and should have been used in determining the future of their industry.

Another independent report this year — from the Royal Society of Edinburgh — concluded that decision-making had been far too centralised, had ignored local expertise and had lost the respect of the very people who were needed to make it work. “The present gulf between scientists and the industry must be bridged,” it said.

Britain’s fishing fleet can be saved. But if that is to happen, those who are most closely involved — the fishermen themselves — must be allowed to have their say, rather than learning their fate from the desk of some distant landlubber.