- 7 Dec 2016
Presiding Officer, it is a great privilege to have the opportunity to represent the Scottish fishing industry at this debate.
Scotland's fishermen are held in great regard across our country. Colleagues across all parties look to this proud industry as the embodiment of the best of our country.
That is why I was so honoured to be asked by the First Minister to become Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for fishing. In my role, I will do all I can to help the rural economy grow and create prosperity.
Naturally that includes the fishing industry, which is an integral component of the weft and weave of many of our rural communities, including the great port of Peterhead where I was pleased to visit the market earlier this week.
It is therefore important that we take the time to acknowledge the importance of the autumn quota negotiations for the fortunes of the Scottish industry.
Presiding Officer, let me summarise where we have got to in this year's negotiations process.
We now have the full set of scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).
Overall it paints a reasonably positive picture for 2017 with increases advised for a range of stocks such as saithe, hake, monkfish, North Sea Norway lobster, Rockall haddock, mackerel, blue whiting and Atlanto-Scandian herring.
But as usual, there are other stocks where the advice is more difficult.
In the west the fortunes of cod, whiting and herring remain stubbornly intractable, while in the North Sea there are cuts advised for haddock, herring, cod and whiting.
For the latter two, cod and whiting, the cuts are particularly challenging given cod and whiting are being phased into the landing obligation in 2017, when reductions in quota will increase the risk of choking the mixed fishery.
I should underline the Scottish Government remains committed to the ambition of the elimination of discards.
But in implementing the discard ban we must also tackle the challenge of choke species. We must protect the livelihoods of our fishermen and prevent a situation where our fleet is unnecessarily tied to the quayside when there is still quota available to fish.
We are working hard to address these challenges.
We are playing an active role in the regional groups in which we have an interest to drive forward the development of innovative policy solutions to choke risks.
We should not be afraid to be radical where the situation calls for it. I raised this very issue with other fisheries Ministers at the November Council in Brussels.
In addition, following the effective end of the Cod Recovery Plan – an end at which I shed no tears – I welcome that cod days at sea will be a thing of the past.
This should help the fleet adapt to the landing obligation by providing the scope to move to different grounds to control catches of certain stocks.
And, returning to the focus of this debate, the autumn negotiations also have a critical role to play in this by making available in 2017 additional quota top-ups to cover catches of fish that were previously discarded but will now have to be landed.
Of course, what stands between the scientific advice and the final quota for next year are the negotiations themselves, where balances and compromises sometimes need to be found.
This year's talks are now well underway and have already delivered some strong results.
The Coastal States talks for mackerel took place in October and delivered an excellent 14% increase for 2017. At current prices this equates to a value of around £218 million for Scotland, an increase of around £28 million on 2016.
However, the Coastal States talks on blue whiting and Atlanto-Scandian herring have been less satisfactory.
While they agreed total catches for 2017 they failed to agree each party's share of this. So unco-ordinated and unilateral quota are inevitable and risk continued overfishing this important and valuable stock.
Last week's negotiations between the EU and Norway delivered a pair of important agreements.
On the one hand, an agreement was signed which ring-fenced shares and access arrangements for blue whiting and Atlanto-Scandian herring in 2017.
While I am pleased this will prevent a repeat of the inexcusably opaque events we saw at last year's December Council, disappointingly this agreement also increased the level of Norwegian access to our waters next year – access that Scotland has to bear the burden of policing.
Conclusion of the parallel whitefish agreement then followed late last Friday evening.
This brings certainty on quota levels for some of our key North Sea stocks and allows fishing to begin on 1 January.
I am very pleased that this government's involvement in the negotiations successfully turned around proposed cuts in North Sea cod and whiting to deliver increases of around 17% for each.
This respects the scientific advice and continues to move these stocks towards maximum sustainable yield (MSY) fishing levels. But importantly it provides a bit more time for the industry to adjust to the phasing of these stocks into the landing obligation next year.
In addition, we secured a significant overall 53% increase in North Sea saithe. This will provide the best possible platform from which this stock will be phased into the landing obligation in the North Sea in 2018.
However, alongside these positives, the new agreement contains some disappointments.
In particular, my view is that the cost of the deal was excessive. The European Commission chose to give away to Norway some 110,000 tonnes of blue whiting – primarily a Scottish stock – with very little direct tangible benefit being returned to the Scottish fishing industry.
As a result, I took the decision – fully supported by the UK government – to oppose the overall package on the table.
However, the Commission chose to ignore the views of the second largest contributor to the package and signed the agreement anyway.
Moving on, the EU/Faroe talks are underway as I speak.
In return for the essential quota and access opportunities to Faroese waters this agreement provides for our whitefish fleet, Faroese vessels may fish a number of their quota in our waters, including mackerel.
While I accept this as part of the agreement, I cannot accept how the level of Faroese access was fixed in 2014, done in private by the Commission without any consultation with member states. However I am hearing today from my officials at the on-going EU/Faroe talks in Brussels that helpfully the issue of the level of Faroese access for mackerel is now back on the negotiating table, rather than being fixed.
While it will nevertheless be very challenging to deliver a reduction from 30%, that this issue is now again being discussed in the negotiations is a significant step forward.
And finally, this year's negotiations reach their conclusion at next week's December Council which will negotiate the remaining stocks fished solely by EU fleets.
My focus at Council will be to ensure that good scientific advice is converted into actual quota, to resist cuts where there are scientifically justifiable reasons for doing so, and to continue to secure other outcomes linked to tackling future choke risks.
Of course, I can't talk about fisheries without referring to the result of the now not so recent European referendum.
While I acknowledge that many in the fishing industry voted to leave the EU and I understand why that is the case – the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has not been a success for Scottish fisheries, and I recognise that there are opportunities outside of the EU for our industry.
I am pleased that we have worked very closely with (Scottish Fisherman's Association chief executive) Bertie Armstrong and his colleagues on these issues.
I fully intend to press the UK Government to ensure that we make the most of those. Indeed a few weeks ago I wrote to Andrea Leadsom urging her to confirm that she would not give away permanent access to Scottish waters to European fishing vessels in any exit deal.
We must not give up control over our waters and give away access, our most valuable asset, on a permanent basis. Rather we should negotiate access to our waters on an annual basis – as indeed do Norway, the Faroes and Iceland.
It would be totally unacceptable for the UK Government to use access to our waters to solve problems with quota in English waters as they seem to hint that they may wish to do.
But we must also acknowledge the risks that Brexit will bring, and the potential damage it can do to the industry.
In 2015 Scotland exported £438 million of seafood to the EU. And we benefited from 50 EU trade deals. This is why we must avoid a hard Brexit and the UK should remain a full member of the single market.
And it is also why it is important that we get our fishing industry on the most sustainable footing now, so it is the best place possible to cope with whatever the future brings.
Presiding Officer, it is clear that the autumn negotiations are a complex process.
This year they are taking place in an increasingly complex political landscape.
What is simple, however, is my pledge to explore and seek to activate all options open to us to secure the best outcomes for our industry.
I will work tirelessly to ensure that this year's talks deliver the best possible deals and have Scotland's best interests at their heart.