Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 168 - 179)




  168.  Gentlemen, thank you for coming to London. We will come to see you as well in Scotland in the not too distant future so our paths may cross again. I am sorry to have kept you waiting. We began a little late with our last witnesses. We will try and be disciplined to enable you to say what you want to say. Mr Smith, can I begin by inviting you to introduce your colleagues?
  (Mr Smith) I am Alexander Smith and I am President of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. I am a sixth generation fisherman and have spent 40 years at sea, 35 of those as skipper of my own vessel. On my right is Hamish Morrison and I will let him introduce himself.

  (Mr Morrison) Hamish Morrison, Chief Executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation of only six months' standing; previously Chief Executive of the Scottish Council for Development in Industry and, a long time before that, I was an officer in the Royal Navy when I think I met your father in law.

  169.  We will discuss that after the session ends.
  (Mr Goodlad) John Goodlad. I am one of the two Vice-Presidents of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and in addition to that I am employed by the Shetland Fishermen's Association and the Shetland PO.

  170.  Mr Smith, can I just begin by inviting you to paint a general picture, briefly please, of the Scottish industry, how it differs from the rest of the United Kingdom and what you see as the most important factor shaping its future?
  (Mr Smith) Firstly, at the risk of maybe offending my colleagues south of the border, the Scottish fishing industry does catch 70 per cent of the fish caught in the UK industry. Most of the new investment over the past decade, or maybe perhaps longer, has been in the north east of Scotland, mostly with pelagic vessels. That is the standing of the Scottish industry as we see it. What was the second part of your question?

  171.  What factors do you think will be particularly important in shaping the future of the industry in Scotland?
  (Mr Smith) How long do we have?

  172.  Just a snapshot of one or two things.
  (Mr Smith) Something that concerns us is the structure of our fleet now and the age. The average age of the Scottish fleet is in excess of 25 years. I can think back five years ago when we said the average age was in excess of 20 years. I certainly hope that, in five years' time, I do not have to say the average age is 30 years. That is something that gives us great concern. It is very much linked to safety. The amount of new builds coming into the industry is minimal and the cost of these new builds with licences and fishing entitlement in particular is of an excessive nature. It is almost a closed shop. In other words, if you are not in the industry now, you will have great difficulty in getting into the industry. The cost of these licences has been well documented in the past. The problem is like a car market. There are people who cannot afford a Rolls-Royce and can only afford a small—

Mr Mitchell

  173.  Robin Reliant?
  (Mr Smith) That is the bottom of the line, I suppose. The only way we can get second hand cars is for people to buy new cars. This is very much the case in the industry. Because of the lack of new investment in anything other than a trickle, the good second hand vessels are not working their way down the line. Thankfully, most of the new vessels are built in the north east of Scotland but nevertheless, once people build new vessels, they then in turn put their second hand vessels, which are very good quality, on the market and they ultimately will move. Places like the west coast of Scotland, in England as well and Northern Ireland are where all the older vessels tend to go. The fact is that these vessels are not working their way through so there is a problem with the age of the vessel all through the fleet. That gives us great concern so that is one area that certainly has to be addressed in the future. We do need support to rebuild and modernise the fleet.

Mrs Organ

  174.  This is about research again. Do you consider that the current money spent by the UK government on fisheries research actually is real value for money for the taxpayer?
  (Mr Goodlad) The very short answer to that is it probably is, but I would qualify that very importantly by one or two points. I think we are very critical, quite rightly, of much of the scientific research but at the same time we acknowledge that it is a very difficult science and a very inexact science. You can only get an approximate indication of the real health and status of stocks by sending out one or two vessels, taking trawlers doing net surveys, stock assessments and so on. It is a very inaccurate science at best. We believe that it would be better value for the taxpayer if the industry were more involved and I do not mean by that simply consulted in terms of, "This is the work we have done and this is what we reckon next year's stocks will be. This is what we propose in terms of next year's quotas." That is the kind of consultation we have at present, which is fine. It is very valuable, but we believe that we should much more proactively involved, rather than simply reacting and giving an opinion. We should be more actively involved with the scientists in establishing what kind of voyages should take place, what kind of scientific assessments should be undertaken. Fishermen should be more actively involved in those voyages. In the evidence of the NFFO, it was said that scientists should go on board fishing vessels. I agree with that. In addition to that and perhaps more importantly, working fishermen should always accompany the scientific research vessels. That is beginning to happen now in Scotland with, for example, the Scotia, the new research vessel on pelagic voyages. Active, working skippers are encouraged to go on board and have an active input into the operation. It is a two-way process. The scientists will benefit and the fishing industry will benefit and will perhaps better understand the scientific process. I think it probably is reasonable value but it could be better if the industry was involved more closely.

  175.  But you know that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Would you be prepared as an industry to put some resources and funds into that so that you would have a greater say in deciding the research projects or even paying for your own scientists to do some work?
  (Mr Goodlad) Again, the short answer to that is no and maybe yes to the last bit. I think no because I think the Common Fisheries Policy is based on quota regulations and it is incumbent on every Member State to do their bit in providing the scientific assessment. It would be entirely wrong for the United Kingdom government to abrogate its responsibility in that field by looking for commercial funding where no other Member State does so. Equally, the industry is hardly in the position of having excessive profits such that it could make such a financial contribution that would be in any sense meaningful. Again, if the UK industry were asked to do that, it would place us at an even greater competitive disadvantage with our European competitors, none of whom make a similar contribution. In essence, the answer is no. However, we recognise that if we are to become more proactive with the scientific community in fisheries assessment and stock assessment then perhaps we need to do a little bit more ourselves. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation, for example, is looking again at the possibility of perhaps employing a scientific adviser.

  176.  Given that there are limited resources on the spending for the research, which area do you consider should be prioritised at the expense of which others in the research that is being carried out?
  (Mr Smith) There are a number of new fisheries and I feel that there is inadequate data to give clear or even closely accurate advice on stocks. Some of these stocks—I will name a few—are under precautionary total allowable catches for the year, West Coast Monks in particular, where there is very little assessment done on this fishery. The TAC that they keep rolling on year after year is a precautionary TAC which bears no resemblance to the stock at all. The reason I say it bears no resemblance is because most of the new builds in the demersal fleet in Scotland have been built to prosecute the deep water fishery and the deep water continental shelf edge of it which previously was not fished by our vessels prior to maybe ten years ago. It is a new expanse of ground that is being fished for the first time by our vessels and the data that scientists have is totally inadequate to give a proper stock assessment. The other one is with North Sea nephrops, where it also is on a precautionary TAC and the same applies there. If I go back ten years ago, there was hardly any vessel that caught nephrops outside, say, 30 miles of the land. Now that is where the main fishing area is for nephrops. Scientists have said that, in their opinion, there could be an increase in the precautionary TAC but it has never happened. These are areas where fishermen genuinely see that the scientists have got it wrong and those are the areas where the industry could help scientists in as much as the vessels fishing in the deep water on the west coast could carry scientists with them on commercial voyages and they would take data from these voyages to substantiate what we are saying.

  177.  You have said in your memo to us that fishermen are increasingly sceptical about the accuracy and the value of some of the research findings. Do you have any direct evidence that they are right to be so?
  (Mr Smith) The easiest direct evidence is when you go to sea and you find that there is an abundance of fish everywhere. An example of that was the haddock stock last year, where they said it was going to be a poor year. This was one of the reasons why the black fish scenario got out of all proportion, because fishermen could not avoid catching these haddock. It did not matter where they went, they caught haddock. They were in a dilemma. They had two choices. After taking them on board, they could either dump them or else they could land them. This is the difficulty that the working fisherman has. When scientists get it wrong, then it creates problems that are insurmountable by fishermen because we are working in a mixed fishery and we cannot avoid catching these fish. Cod are another side of it. If we go back about three years ago, a very highly thought of scientist had said that the cod stock in the North Sea was close to collapse. Within nine months, Lowestoft had come out and said that there was a massive year class coming into the fishery. Hence, there was a big increase in the TAC for 1998. The full scientific advice was not taken. The scientific advice was 140,000 tonnes and the end result was that the TAC was 125. The industry was quite happy inwardly to accept less than the scientific advice. In other words, we felt that we had banked some cod for future years. We were accepting a precautionary state at that time but it meant we still had an increase. Nevertheless, there have been problems this year with the abundance of cod on the grounds. If you catch cod, you are in this dilemma. Do you throw it back dead or do you land it illegally?

  178.  Mr Marsden asked questions of your English counterparts about the particular situation about seals. I wonder if you would like to give us your comments about that particular policy and what you think is the way forward for that?
  (Mr Smith) John is on speaking terms with many of the seals in Shetland.

  179.  There are not a lot of them in England really.
  (Mr Goodlad) We have them all up there. I think Mr Marsden asked for some factual evidence which I will be pleased to give but before that, as someone who was born and brought up and continues to live and work in Shetland, I know from my own personal experience that the seal population is now several fold what it used to be when I was a young boy. That is something which you will find if you ask any Shetlander or anyone living in the north of Scotland. It used to be that many people made their living from hunting seals not that many years ago. Of course, that no longer is the case. The seal population has literally exploded. In 1979, the Natural Environmental Research Council undertook an assessment of the grey seal population of the north of Scotland and concluded that the population had reached record levels with something like 60,000 grey seals reported off the north coast of Scotland, including Orkney and Shetland. In their opinion in 1979, that was an excessive number and they advised the then Labour Government under Jim Callaghan that a seal cull should be undertaken. Of course the public outcry following the Norwegian sealers coming into Orkney was such that the government abandoned the seal cull. I am making no comments whatsoever on seal culls. The only point I will make is that the present evidence on seals, undertaken by the Natural Environmental Research Council, is that the seal population which in 1979 was at record levels at 60,000 is at least 130,000 or 140,000 now, so it has doubled and the problem has doubled from what it was in 1979. When you consider that each seal will eat at least two tonnes of fish per year, our seal population—and I am talking only of grey seals off the north coast of Scotland—of 140,000 will therefore eat 280,000 tonnes of fish every year, well in excess of the Scottish white fish quota, for example. The point I am making is there is a huge problem with the seal population. The seal factor has to be taken into account in evaluations of size of fish stock and the seal problem has to be addressed. We find it a very difficult issue for the fishing industry to address. It is extremely emotive and most politicians, if you will forgive me saying so, are too frightened to deal with it because of the public reaction. We have not any easy answers but we would hope that a Committee like this would at least begin to look at the serious issue and perhaps begin to see if there are any ways of addressing it. It is a very serious issue. There are too many seals and they eat too many fish.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 10 January 1999