Sea Fisheries and End-Year Negotiations

7 December 2016

Rhoda's speech in the Scottish Parliament debate

This debate is as much an annual event as the negotiations that we are debating.

If we were setting up such a negotiation afresh, we would not do it this way, and one hopes that, if Brexit has one upside, it is that annual negotiations on quotas and total allowable catches will not happen like this in future—although historical negotiations with Norway and the Faroes do not fill me with high expectations in that respect.

Our fishing communities have made it clear that they want rights to UK waters, but they will also need access to European markets, and those two issues will require negotiation.

Such matters, though, are for another day.

As we are still part of the EU, these negotiations are just as important as they have been in the past.

I turn to our amendment. Marine Scotland operates marine protection vessels, which were formerly known as the Scottish fisheries protection fleet.

The crews of these vessels ensure adherence to the outcome of the negotiations that we are talking about; they are specialists, and they need to understand the fishing industry.

Some years ago, Marine Scotland was finding it difficult to recruit and retain crew, so it paid the crews a retention bonus of £5,000 to keep them in the service.

However, even with that bonus, their salaries were lower than those of other publicly paid seafarers.

For instance, a chief steward for Marine Scotland earns up to £29,579 a year, while at Caledonian MacBrayne, the pay for the same post is £37,675 a year.

A seaman working for Marine Scotland earns up to £25,543, but they would earn £32,998 with CalMac. However, with the downturn in the oil industry, Marine Scotland now appears to think that crew are ten a penny and is removing the bonus.

It has already been halved, and it could disappear altogether next year, which would mean a £5,000 pay cut in total.

However, there are still huge issues with recruiting staff, and I am concerned that we will get back to the situation that we had a number of years ago of vessels having to tie up because they did not have the required staffing levels to sail safely.

The Government simply has no reasonable excuse for paying those who work for Marine Scotland less than the going rate for the job. It is bad for seafarers; it is bad for their families and communities; and it is bad for Scotland’s fisheries.

A Marine Scotland employee told me:

“I feel that the skill set that we have is being ignored compared to the job we do and I don’t see why CalMac and Marine Scotland are on two different scales of pay.”

These are tough jobs, and those who do them have to spend weeks at sea away from their families.

They need experience and expertise, but Marine Scotland still cuts their salaries without negotiation.

Moreover, as we put more pressure on these crews, we treat them abysmally, preferring to pay agency staff to fill the gaps instead of rewarding loyal, skilled crew members.

If we are to ensure the industry’s future as well as the conservation of fish stocks, we need crews working with fishermen, rather than inexperienced crews working on short-term contracts.

The permanent crew are not there for the money; indeed, if that was what they were after, they would not be there at all, because they could be paid much more elsewhere.

They have built up expertise, working with the fishing fleet, and they are invested in the industry.

That is what we are asking for: a fair pay settlement, not a pay cut, for these crews to show them that we value the role that they play and the work that they do on our behalf.

With regard to the larger issue of the discard ban, we have frequently debated the incredible waste of throwing dead fish back into the sea because boats do not have enough quota left to land them.

Surely such waste is immoral when so many go without enough food to feed themselves, and it does nothing to conserve stocks, because the fish are already dead when they are returned.

At best, discards provide an easy meal for seabirds and other predators, but they do nothing for the species or, indeed, the environment.

As a result, we, like many others, have advocated a discard ban.

By that, we mean not a ban that would stop fishermen working and would therefore cause hardship both to those at sea and to processors on land, but a ban that would allow bycatch to be landed and used and which would neither punish nor reward the boats that had inadvertently caught the fish.

My understanding is that the current ban, which is to be extended to white fish this year, falls short of that aim.

Albeit that it is being phased in, we need to deal with any potential issues before they arise.

Discarding at sea is to be banned, and anyone who does that will be open to sanction and, indeed, charges.

Ultimately, a boat could be stripped of its licence.

To legally land bycatch, people must be able to access quota for the species that make up that bycatch.

It could be argued that, if that quota was readily available, the species would never have been dumped as bycatch in the first place.

It must be recognised that bycatch is made up of fish that have no easily available quota that would allow them to be landed.

Those fish are regarded as choke species.

Trading quotas are sometimes available, but there is concern that they will be hoarded by countries for their own use and will not be traded widely enough to allow everyone to continue to fish. If trading does not happen, bycatches of choke species will become illegal to land and will attract severe penalties.

Therefore, crews may discard them in order to keep on working, and that is also illegal.

The fishing industry is investing in new technology and gear to enable it to fish in a more targeted way.

Technology is developing, and we must invest more in the science to get the best possible solutions.

Avoiding choke species altogether is always the best outcome, and it is in all our interests that we have healthy fish stocks, but we need a system to be in place that allows everything that is caught to be landed.

Where there is no quota for bycatch, there must be a way to land it.

That could be by flexible fines.

The fine could be equivalent to the sale price of the choke species with an allowance for the time and fuel that were spent on landing it.

That way, crews would be able to land the fish without penalty, but also without reward, which would make it unattractive for them to target the species.

A careful balance would need to be struck, but a solution must be found to allow fishers to land bycatch without being unjustifiably punished for abiding by the discard ban.

These debates happen every year, but they are as important as ever, despite Brexit.

Suffice to say, we all want the best deal for our fishing industry.

We all want a deal that ensures that stocks are protected for future generations, the current generation can make a living and we can all have fish to eat.

Our coastal communities are vulnerable and need a stable industry for their survival. It is not just the crews and boats that depend on the fishing industry; the processors and workers onshore do so, too.

I move amendment S5M-02922.2 , to insert at end: “, and believes that Marine Scotland staff who crew marine protection vessels should receive a fair pay settlement that recognises their experience and skills."