Sunday, 20 December 2020

Scottish White Fish Producers A Chairman’s Note 2020


In my address to members last year, I referred to it being a vintage year. The highs and lows the sector had endured set it aside from other, more stable yet less profitable years. The performance of a number of sectors had been record breaking, the euphoria and roller coaster around Brexit had peaked and ebbed and the cod stock had once again dipped below acceptable levels. While last year was in many respects vintage, 2020 will be remembered for a long list of very different reasons. 

Whereas a risk of a global pandemic may be recognised as a threat to the world’s major economies, it would be fair to say that not many in the fishing industry, if any, believed that such an event was either possible or would be capable of having the wide-spread impact on the seafood sector it has. The depth and breadth of that impact has varied according to the nature of the business, but whether connected to the seafood sector onshore or offshore, Covid 19 has impacted every business. 

Our nephrops sector has faced particular challenges this year as has the scallop sector, both of which faced an immediate loss of income due to the sudden loss of their high-end continental restaurant market. Expectantly, and perhaps optimistically, next year will see the emergence of some normality as restaurants open up fully, people resume holidays and business travel and the demand for high quality seafood returns. Like other fishermen I too have a tendency to forget that seafood is a global commodity, highly dependent on international networks of trade and personal relationships. As fishermen we tend to be consumed on local issues which we allow to shape our view, both in terms of what we, ourselves, provide to the seafood industry, but also in terms of how resilient we believe our industry to be. 

Events this year have shown how fragile that resilience is. Inescapably, we have come to understand that we are more dependent on overseas markets than we would care to acknowledge; issues of oversupply on weakened demand have made us acutely aware that our own perceptions of our levels of resilience are perhaps misplaced. 

Clearly, lessons need to be learned and indeed some already have given that we seem to be dealing better with recurring adjustments in the demands of

the hospitality sectors both at home and abroad. While we all hail the dawning of a new era outside Europe there will be inevitable tensions between the UK and other coastal states, but also within the UK between government and devolved administrations. Collectively, we need to ensure that these tensions don’t pull us from the central goal of creating intelligent management systems delivered as a result of inclusive governance and co-management. 

Notwithstanding recent attempts to decentralise decision making within the EU and the Common Fisheries Policy, we have been long standing critics of their top down approach to management which largely ignored the knowledge and thoughts of those being managed. It will be important to involve fishermen from the outset, the very people that can make a difference to the health of our seas. Reinventing our fisheries management systems will most likely provide more challenges than anticipated and more frustrations than will be welcome. 

Nevertheless, that should not deter us from playing our part – we need to show a willingness from the outset. As an association we remain focussed on attracting more young fishers into the catching sector whilst at the same time ensuring that those already employed on our vessels receive all the support they require. 

The recently announced points based immigration system largely ignored the recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee which, on the back of strong lobbying from parts of the catching sector, accepted that being a fisherman was a skilled profession. If accepted by the Home Office it would have led to overseas fishermen being able to enter the country on a visa as opposed to a transit visa. The work of lobbying Parliament will continue in the hope that we can convince the Home office to make the necessary changes. 

Notwithstanding the current situation with Brexit, the future for Scotland’s fishermen and the seafood sector more broadly looks reasonably bright. That said, a number of issues loom on the horizon that we need to monitor. The first is the efficiency creep of our fleet, we need to ensure that capacity doesn’t overtake opportunities although we do need to maintain profitability as a way of attracting reinvestment. In order to help us maintain stable stocks, we will keep a close eye on the balance between fluctuations in stock biomass and corresponding TACs. Importantly, we need to work more closely with our colleagues in the onshore sector to ensure that they profit from their endeavours just as we do. If nothing else, events this year have shown us how dependent we are on each other for our success. We ignore that lesson to our detriment and the future success of our seafood sector.