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The fishing industry has reacted with anger and dismay as the Scottish Government announced an 11-week fishing ban in the Firth of Clyde – a decision, they say, made with no prior discussion.
There is a feeling of being let down in the fishing community – not just in Clyde coastal villages but across Scotland – at the move, announced at Holyrood by Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands.
The row centres on measures first agreed 21 years ago to protect spawning cod by closing off an area of the Firth of Clyde to the south of Arran between February and April each year.
Fishermen, scientists and government collaborated to design the ‘Cod Box Scheme’, which is reviewed every two years, but there has been an exemption allowed for nephrops trawlers, creels and scallop dredgers to fish in the area due to the low amounts of cod they catch.
The latest review led to a government consultation held between October and November 2021 – before the shock announcement came earlier this week.
The area – roughly between Ugadale Point in Kintyre, the south of Arran, south to Loch Ryan and across to Campbeltown – will now be closed from February 14 to April 30 in 2022 and 2023.
Speaking on January 13 in response to a parliamentary question by Scottish Greens MSP Mark Ruskell – who said he was ‘very encouraged’ by the announcement – Ms Gougeon said: ‘Despite the seasonal closure being in place since 2002, unfortunately the [cod] stock has shown very little sign of recovery. It seems sensible to maximise any potential benefit from the closure to assist stock recovery.
‘We acknowldge this will have a short-term impact on local fishers because the closure will be for a period of 11 weeks.’
The Clyde Fishermen’s Association (CFA), with static and mobile fishing members including many in Argyll, reacted with shock and anger.
In a statement the CFA said: ‘We have made continuous efforts to find sustainable ways of ensuring our coastal communities can survive and work with government and our ministers.
‘As an association we proposed weekend bans on mobile fishing – the only such area in Scotland – we were a founding partner in creating a No Take Zone in the Clyde, again the only NTZ in Scotland and over 20 years ago we also proposed the Clyde Box Closure in the Clyde to protect spawning stocks.
‘We did this in collaboration with the Scottish Government which ultimately helped us to deliver these progressive measures.
‘It is therefore incredibly demoralising and soul-destroying to see such positive measures being turned against the sustainably-minded fishermen who helped create them, and all without any meaningful involvement.
‘This new measure excludes all bottom contact fishing in the area, be it static/creel fishing or mobile fishing.
‘This decision will have a horrific impact on the fishing families of the Clyde, and we are struggling to identify the reasons for this action.’
There are fears that the ban will force boats towards other fishing grounds, which could mean unsustainably high fishing levels in those areas.
The CFA statement went on: ‘This will mean a total loss of income for many of the small family boats for months, not a burden they can easily bear as these fishing communities have already had the hardest two years they can recall between Brexit and Covid.
‘It will also have social and environmental impacts. Some families may sell up and relocate, families can’t survive for months with no income, this will impact not only the fishing economy, but also the wider socio-economy of fishing villages, towns and their facilities such as shops and schools.
‘It will likely have the impact of sustainably-minded small but vital family businesses going to the wall along with further depopulation in areas like Argyll and Bute.
‘It is quite unthinkable that a fisheries minister would act against progressive fishing communities in such a way. This is not the relationship of mutual respect we genuinely hoped to forge with our new minister.’
The CFA claimed that Ms Gougeon did not request a meeting in advance with the fishing communities impacted, ‘not even a phone call to explain personally the decision and understand its impacts or explore other potential alternative measures’.
Suspicion has arisen that SNP ministers have been pressured by the Scottish Green Party, who in turn are influenced by powerful interest groups from outwith the region.
The CFA continued: ‘It seems this policy decision was one which the Scottish Green Party may have pushed our SNP fisheries minister on from their vantage point in Edinburgh and Glasgow, not from the depopulating areas of Kintyre and beyond which will feel this most keenly.
‘A consultation was circulated to Fisheries Management and Conservation Group members on September 15, 2021 asking for views on the Clyde Cod Box to be returned by October 13. From what we understand some well-funded lobby groups and scientists affiliated to these groups started to question the process of consultation which Marine Scotland operated.
‘Consequently the consultation was re-opened and extended on October 20 to the November 4, during which time an orchestrated social media campaign was delivered by the network of lobby groups which tend to be against current small-scale models of community fishing.’
The scientific rationale behind the decision, claims the CFA, is also ‘questionable’.
‘Science on the west coast is generally quite data deficient, often due to a lack of resources,’ the CFA said.
‘For three years the CFA, St Andrew’s University and Marine Scotland worked together to conduct neutral baseline surveys which aimed assess basic cod and finfish populations in the Clyde Cod Box area.
‘The trials were stopped in 2018 due to staffing issues at Marine Scotland, but the CFA and St Andrews University have consistently requested that the trials are restarted and keen to support them in terms of resources.
‘Without such trials the practical knowledge of the area is missing and informed policy decisions are difficult to take.’
A possible culprit in continuing low cod stocks, according to the CFA, is climate change.
As Clyde waters heat up, cod stocks are moving north – something which, it says, Nordic nations have confirmed scientifically.
The CFA statement continued: ‘The lack of communication, consideration and involvement is staggering and directed towards fishing communities who have done their utmost to support balanced conservation.’
CFA chair Tommy Finn said: ‘I am absolutely shocked to the core at this decision which will see many of our members unable to fish sustainably for almost three months.
‘We can’t understand the lack of communication with our small scale fishing communities, or indeed the families and businesses they support not only around the Clyde but in wider Scotland, Northern Ireland and the EU.
‘It’s going to impact not only boats, crew and factories, but also school numbers and jobs in local shops and services. The government talks of initiatives to repopulate rural communities, but such an action seems almost aimed at driving out fishing families who are already settled in the Clyde area.
‘We have co-operated with the Scottish Government and in many instances shared their sustainable vision for vibrant and well managed fishing communities, but we currently feel like our communities have been used as a wider political pawn and shut out of a crucial decision impacting them.
‘Sadly this has not been the first time, and frankly we feel disrespected without reason. We hoped our government would work with us collaboratively on issues of conservation and management, and we are disappointed beyond words or reasonable comprehension.
‘We have to be better than this collectively.
‘We are sorry to find our communities in this position, but our door is open to communication with the Scottish Government and its ministers, and we hope there is time to reach a fairer outcome before February 14.’
The view was echoed by fishermen across the country.
Scottish Fishermen’s Federation chief executive Elspeth Macdonald said: ‘The decision taken about the Clyde renders laughable any claims by the Scottish Government about them taking a co-management approach to fisheries management.’
The Shetland Fishermen organisation tweeted: ‘We stand with our CFA colleagues over this breach of trust by the Scottish government. Ministers will lose the co-operation of fishermen if damaging decisions are made without warning or evidence. The end of co-management would be a huge step back for informed conservation.’
Tarbert fisherman and former CFA chair Kenny MacNab expressed his exasparation on Twitter, where he posted: ‘The Scottish Government showing their true colours, being manipulated by a party that no-one voted for just to gain a small majority in parliament and a minister who couldn’t even come and speak to the businesses she wants to put to the wall. Didn’t follow process either. Unbelievable.’