Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 765 - 779)




  765. Gentlemen, welcome to the last evidence session of this public session of the Agriculture Committee's visit to Scotland for its current inquiry into sea fishing. We are very grateful to you for coming. We are under quite a tight deadline to get back to the airport, we will try and keep the questioning brief and succinct and hopefully you will have a chance to say all you want to say. Mr Gordon, thank you for your memorandum of evidence already submitted to the Committee, we are grateful for that. Mr Gilland, thank you for the memorandum of evidence you have given to our specialist adviser which we will circulate to the Committee in due course. Thank you for that. There is no obligation for written evidence, Mr MacSween, so do not feel left out, please.

  (Mr MacSween) I do not feel in the slightest left out.

  Chairman: We have already heard evidence from the Federation in London so we understand the restricted nature of the subjects you want to address to us this afternoon because, as you say, you leave lobbying issues to the Federation. With that in mind I will invite Mr Curry to begin the questioning.

  Mr Curry: Why do you need three POs on this coast?


  766. You can answer as you see fit. You can choose which of you answers.

  (Mr MacSween) I am tempted to say that we do not but I do not know what the other two might say about it. I suspect it is largely for geographic and historic reasons. I represent the Scottish Fishermen's Organisation which geographically covers the economic area from Portpatrick, down in the South West of Scotland, right round to Peterhead, including the islands to the North and West. I do not propose to speak for either of the other two but I think Hamish's organisation in Aberdeen grew largely out of the trawler company structure that existed in Aberdeen in the early 1970s and Mr Gilland's organisation grew out of some dissent within the Scottish Fishermen's Organisation to be strictly accurate about it.

  767. Do you think that as the industry evolves and it changes that your structures and the way they are organised are likely to change as well?

  (Mr MacSween) I think it is possible. It is interesting that the recent proposal from the European Commission on the common organisation of the market explicitly recognises that one of the problems facing the catching sector is the growing strength of the retail sector. There is a lesson from other food sectors that the fishing industry has to learn because if we are to be able to offset the monopolistic benefits that large supermarket chains have then a system of small disparate POs is not the best way of going about it. Having said that, in terms of the UK the three organisations represented here are not particularly small. My own view is that it is a nonsense to have 14 producer organisations within the UK, some with as few as 20-odd members, they can achieve nothing.
  (Mr Gordon) As Ian rightly says, in the beginning our PO was formed from companies in Aberdeen owning trawler vessels. I think the SFO was the other PO in Scotland. POs are voluntary organisations and fishermen themselves decided that they wanted to form other bodies; a bit of early devolution you might say. It is also worth noting—I have got some percentages—between the three POs we are responsible for some 50 per cent of the North Sea's cod TACs for the UK, 74 per cent of the haddock and on the West Coast 80 per cent of the haddock and 70 per cent of the cod. All three POs are responsible for a large proportion of the UK TACs.

  768. Let me just move on if I may, because the POs seem to me to have a particularly important role as we move more and more into the area of the ownership of quotas. I am quoting now one of the Scottish fishermen's leaders who said that the takeover by individual transferable quotas was inevitable. He did not say he liked it or he approved of it, he just said "this is the way the market is going, it is going to happen". First of all, do you agree with that? I am not asking whether you like it, I am just asking whether you think that inevitably this trend is one that is going to keep on. The pros and cons we can go into later, I just want to know whether factually you think this is going to become much more dominant?

  (Mr Gilland) Personally my own view is that the move to FQAs significantly increases the likelihood of that happening?


  769. Sorry, FQAs?

  (Mr Gilland) Fixed quota allocations. The reason I say that is as the increase in the purchase of track record by individuals has spread in my opinion there has been a different attitude taken to the likelihood of ITQs, that there would probably be less opposition now than there was a couple of years ago. Having said that, there are still many in the industry who would be of the view that they would not like to see the introduction of ITQs in the foreseeable future.

  770. Mr MacSween?

  (Mr MacSween) No, I do not believe that we are inevitably going to end up with individual transferable quotas of one description or another. I think what we have seen is something of a move away from a system where the fish resources were commonly owned or there was no ownership at all. If I can just digress, it seems to me there are a large number of problems to be resolved before one can even begin talking about ITQs and, of course, one is who actually holds the property right of the fish stock at the present time. I suspect there are those in the UK Government who actually believe that the UK Government holds the property right. Equally I know there are those in Brussels who would say that this is, in fact, a European resource so the UK Government has no jurisdiction over creating property rights. Until that problem is resolved I think it will be very difficult to do anything. However, if one looks at what has actually happened in the Scottish industry in the past 20 years it does speak very strongly against the introduction of ITQs. It seems to me that the way the Scottish industry has been able to survive and has been able to flourish has been by being able to diversify. One of the inevitable consequences of ITQs is that it stops diversification because effectively it says "you shall catch whatever is permitted by your historic performance". If that was introduced tomorrow you could tie up half the Scottish fleet because they are actually catching species now for which they have no historic performance. I heard evidence earlier on about the switch to twin-rigging by a majority of the Scottish fleet, the catchpole position of the average Scottish vessel today bears very little resemblance to what it was five years ago, so if you try and devise an ITQ system based on an historic catch pattern you would just throw the whole industry into total chaos.

  771. For a minute I want to maintain an hypothesis that ITQs are going to play an important role, I put it no more strongly than that. Do you think that producer organisations are bodies that can reconcile to some degree, because of the way they manage their members, the ownership of fishing rights with the management of the dangers of the migration of the rights and eventually the jobs? When you talk to many fishermen their fear is that if something becomes marketable then it is bought up by people, either big fish inside or it is bought up by big fish outside, and eventually it migrates. One of the ways in which perhaps that can be controlled or managed is if the PO itself becomes proactive in this purchase of quota and management and distribution of that purchased quota. Do you think there is a way of reconciling a way of life with the advent of more market forces by exploiting the PO mechanisms?

  (Mr MacSween) It seems to me you are actually getting back to the system which we started off with if what you are suggesting is that the POs should buy all of the individual transferable quota rights and hold them as a group right in effect. That was actually where we started off when the whole system of sector quota management was introduced to bring a degree of flexibility to fisheries management and groups were allocated quantities of fish based on their historic fishing patterns. If you now move from that to a system and say "within the PO structure we will confer property rights on each and every individual but the ideal solution is for the group to acquire all those property rights", it seems to me we are just going back to where we came from. There are two real dangers in the confirmation of property rights. It is something we have seen very clearly, particularly in the pelagic sector, that very considerable quantities of what were once UK quotas have been bought particularly by the Dutch. Virtually every pelagic licence that has come up for sale in the past year and a half has ended up in the ownership of the Netherlands freezer trawler fleet and their reputation is somewhat less than savoury. I think the other problem is that the smaller coastal communities, particularly those on the West Coast, would find their fishing rights being purchased by places like Peterhead. It seems to me, without being overly dramatic about it, that the confirmation of property rights in the fishing industry will do for coastal communities what highland clearances did for the agricultural sector.

  Chairman: That is without being dramatic.

  Mr Curry: I am trying to provoke you.

  Chairman: I think you are succeeding.

Mr Curry

  772. Could you argue that one fishery is a common resource but there is no individual who has an overwhelming incentive to think in conservation terms, whereas if you have a private property right and you have to invest in that and that was a financial investment, it costs money, it introduces a lot of monetarisation into the industry, then in a sense you would become more conservation minded because you have got to get a return on the capital you have invested in that? It is almost like what the people who have just given evidence said. You may have been in the room, I do not know if you listened to what they said, but one of the gentlemen, in fact it was Mr Danny Couper, said there has been a change in the mentality or psychology or perception and he said fishermen have gone from being hunters to being harvesters. Would you like to comment on that?

  (Mr MacSween) I seem to be speaking rather too much. I do not think there is any great body of evidence either in the fishery sectors or other sectors that would lead one to inevitably conclude that the confirmation of property rights leads one to act in a more conservation minded way. I can think of many examples in the mining industry where people with property rights absolutely strip mined huge areas of various countries. The creation of dust bowls in the American Prairies was achieved despite property rights. I simply do not believe that because you say "you have a right to the fish" that you will somehow look after them more carefully.

Mr Mitchell

  773. That is contrary to the New Zealand experience, is it not?

  (Mr MacSween) In the case of New Zealand, which is held up as the case for the introduction of ITQs, you are starting with no fishing industry, a very small historic industry, you are starting from a state of virgin fish stocks and they are almost without exception single species fisheries. None of these things would be the case in our situation.

  774. Okay. The Iceland experience?

  (Mr MacSween) The Iceland experience is an interesting one where again you are talking very largely about a cod fishery where there is now, interestingly, a great deal of internal unrest with those who own the property rights who are sitting in Florida and leasing them out to other people to go and catch. In addition to the simple economics, it really depends on the social dimension that you want the fishing industry to have. Do you want to maintain fishing communities? Norway, for example, which is the largest fishing community in Europe, would have the heebie-jeebies if you even suggested ITQs because they want to maintain viable coastal communities in remote areas where there are no permanent economic opportunities.

Mr George

  775. Would you not say that a way of overcoming these problems is if, as Mr Curry says, ITQs in one form or another are going to be inevitable—and there is an argument that may or may not be the case but let us say that it will be—in that case there is a need for Government intervention in order to ensure that the social dimension of fishing policy remains and there is a way of protecting fishing communities on the West Coast and you provide belt and braces to support the industries in coastal areas?

  (Mr MacSween) I think that is correct. I do not suspect that folk in Cornwall would be too pleased if the Scots bought up all the fishing rights to mackerel in the South West Box and left your fishermen without any fishing opportunities but that is the inevitable consequence of introducing property rights.

  776. There is very little mackerel left in the South West Box for the Cornish fishermen so maybe we will need to buy some of the mackerel back off the Scots. When we were in Shetland I was very impressed by the way in which the Shetland PO have already started to buy in both to protect themselves and, I imagine, to build up the quota available to them. I guess in each coastal region that will be necessary in order to protect the industry. Presumably your POs are already beginning to think along these lines, are they?

  (Mr MacSween) We are indeed and we have acquired fish. Shetland is not perhaps the best yardstick against which to describe us because they have access to the oil fund in Shetland so effectively the public purse is buying fishing rights for the fish in Shetland that fishermen can catch. I would love it, and I am sure Ron and Hamish would love it, if Aberdeenshire Council could give us £1 million each in the same way as Shetland Council gave the Shetland PO £1 million and we could go out and buy the Cornish fishing rights, which I am sure you would be delighted with.

Mr Curry

  777. As you know, when quota was transferred what happened was a legal agreement by the purchaser and the seller that legally the quota remained on the licence of the seller and then after five years the Government sanctioned the transfers so that, in fact, the actual fish could be attached to the licence and the buyer so that they regularised what was in fact a rather informal situation and attempted to put into legal terms an informal arrangement. We have also heard it said that it is inevitable that the Government will have no choice but to sanction the transfers in this way on an annual basis. Do you agree and do you approve?

  (Mr Gordon) I do agree. I think it is necessary and essential that we agree on the transfers otherwise fishermen will make deals with each other and they will enter into legal agreements which provide for the transfer of fish from one PO to another PO on an annual basis. If we do not have these made permanent annually there is going to be the proliferation of agreements which we had before with the POs transferring to each other.

  778. Can I ask you a question which sounds as though it is very similar but actually it is rather different. In the management of the quotas within the PO would it help if you could have the flexibility of much more short-term transfer leasing, that sort of thing, just to make it easier for fishermen to manage that stock or perhaps have a PO to manage that stock on an internal basis? Again, the previous witnesses said that they have to spread their quota around over the year so there are allocations on a periodic basis but that does not often correspond to what is happening to the stocks there and it would make life much easier if there was a mechanism whereby the fishermen were not under pressure to behave in a way that might not actually correspond to the way the stock behaves. What do you think would be the most helpful two or three measures Government could take which would help you in the management of your organisations and the interests of fishermen?

  (Mr Gordon) One step would be to avoid the vast fluctuations in TACs both upwards and downwards because that causes immense problems. That is one step.

  779. By multi-annual TACs?

  (Mr Gordon) Something. Multi-annual TACs I am not too sure about because the danger is if they are too low we might all catch the three year quota in 18 months' time. This year, for example, there was a 30 per cent cut in the West Coast whiting allocation, a 27 per cent cut in the West Coast haddock, 14 per cent North Sea haddock, these are all very real and very difficult to manage as a result of these quota cuts. If something could be done to even out the increases or the decreases, possibly multi-annual, I do not know, or something similar, that could be a solution.

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 24 June 1999