Aftermath of the great fish crime - stamping out black landings
by Chris Davies
Following disgraceful cases of illegal fishing in Scotland amounting to millions of euros, Britain can now offer examples of best-practice fisheries management to other EU member states – claims MEP
Pride comes before a fall and last month Britain fell a long way. In the largest fraud case of its kind, 17 Scottish skippers were convicted of breaking quotas and - between January 2002 and March 2005 - illegally catching mackerel and herring worth more than £60m. Fish caught were not recorded and with the collusion of the processing plants were diverted away from weighing scales. The men concerned were not hard up and desperate for survival, but some of the wealthiest fishermen in the world. They were greedy, not poor, said the judge. Their motives were purely financial. They had found a means of generating income through deliberate lies and falsehoods.
It could hardly have come at a more embarrassing time. Negotiations aimed at reforming the Common Fisheries Policy are taking place in Brussels, with United Kingdom representatives pressing for agreement to adopt a more sustainable approach. We like to claim that we are good managers of the seas, at least by comparison to some of our continental neighbours. Our self-confidence has been strengthened by the myth that, while others cheat, our fishermen always keep to the rules.
But the behaviour of the Shetland skippers contributed to the destruction of fish stocks, showed contempt for every decent fisherman who kept to the rules and has now dragged Britain's reputation into the gutter. On hearing of the convictions, I was one among many who declared that they had destroyed any pretensions that the UK might have towards occupying the moral high ground on fisheries matters. But there is a positive aspect to the story that has gone largely unnoticed and that points the way towards a better future for European fishing. The good news is that the fishermen got caught, their cheating was detected, they were made to pay a penalty and their practices are unlikely to be repeated.
That the rules were enforced did not come about by accident, but through design. And through a demonstration of political courage by the Scottish government in the face of fierce criticism from vested fishing interests. Particular credit goes to Ross Finnie, the former Liberal Democrat minister who championed the cause of reform and bore up to the abuse that accompanied it. The need for change became starkly evident to Scottish ministers in 2000, when scientific evidence pointed to cod stocks in the North Sea having fallen to dangerously low levels. At the December meeting of European Union fisheries ministers, it was agreed that the cod quota would be cut dramatically and the number of fishing days at sea would fall by up to 70 per cent, hitting fishermen hard in their pockets. With too many boats chasing too few fish, money for a decommissioning scheme was found and fishing capacity dramatically reduced. Within a year, 35 per cent of the Scottish white fishing fleet had been decommissioned.
Research into the development of more selective fishing gear was promoted at Aberdeen's Marine Laboratory. The use of wider mesh sizes was made a requirement in some fisheries and development of a square mesh panel to allow immature code to escape was grant aided and progressively implemented between 2002 and 2006. Money was made available for more scientific observers to go aboard fishing vessels to gain more data, monitor discards and develop a policy for closing spawning areas. There is still a way to go for North Sea cod stocks, but the signs today of recovery are encouraging.
Finnie went farther and made clear the determination to clamp down on the illegal out-of-quota 'black' landings that were rumoured to be taking place. He demonstrated his support for the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency by securing funding for new patrol vessels and he enabled the leasing of aircraft fitted with state-of-the-art cameras. The massive fraud case that led to the convictions highlighted here was unearthed by the SFPA in 2004, when their intelligence could not square landings with trading activity in the Shetlands. Forensic accountants were employed and their findings passed to the procurator fiscal.
The political decisions that stimulated improvement were not easy to secure. Many were opposed bitterly at the time by politicians who are now themselves in the Scottish government, and who are no doubt quietly grateful for the actions of their predecessors. Thanks at least in part to the efforts made, Scotland can now claim to have one of the better approaches to fisheries management to be found anywhere in Europe. It is not perfect but by comparison to others, it is science-based and innovative - while hard issues like overcapacity and fraud have been faced squarely. As negotiations on EU fisheries policy reform moved towards key votes by ministers and MEPs in June and July, Britain can contribute examples of good experience and best practice.
Chris Davies is Liberal Democrat Party MEP for North West England and secretary of the Fish for the Future cross-party group in the European Parliament
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