Fisheries debate: minister's statement

Rural Economy Secretary, Fergus Ewing, addresses the Scottish Parliament on fishing issues.

Presiding Officer, I am pleased to open this, our annual fisheries debate by welcoming the broad consensus across the Parliament in support of the motion.

We go into the year-end talks with an industry and sector in rude health. The mood on the quayside right now is positive and rightly so, with a 25% increase in the real term value of landings in 2016 to £557 million.

So we must focus on the current needs and interests of the industry, the onshore sector, our coastal communities and marine environment and build on that success to ensure a good year of sustainable fishing in 2018.

There are, of course, dark Brexit clouds on the horizon so I welcome the Liberal Democrat amendment acknowledging the uncertainty caused by the prospect and risk of Brexit for the sector, both off shore and on shore.

We now have the full set of scientific advice from ICES, the scientific advice, which for 2018, as usual, shows mixed fortunes.

The advice for whitefish in the North Sea is broadly encouraging, with advised increases for a range of stocks including cod, haddock, whiting, saithe and monkfish. There is also positive advice for North Sea prawns.

However, the west coast remains more difficult, with the fortunes of cod and whiting remaining challenging, and a cut advised for west coast prawns.

For pelagic stocks, the science advises increases for blue whiting and North Sea herring but decreases for mackerel and Atlanto-Scandian Herring, known as ASH.

One of this Government's key negotiating principles is to follow best scientific advice. Respecting such advice enables us to make decisions and secure outcomes that are responsible, credible and objective with sustainability at their heart.

This commitment to sustainability and responsible management is one of the reasons we do need to press forward with tackling discards.

The Scottish Government remains committed to the ambitious principles behind the landing obligation - namely to reduce waste, improve accountability and to safeguard the sustainability of fish stocks.

2018 will see the final year of phasing and the full discard ban will take effect from 2019. To this end, we must endeavour to tackle the issue of choke species.

It is essential that the livelihoods of our fishermen are protected. I am absolutely clear that I could not accept any situation in which our fleet is unnecessarily tied to the quayside when there is still quota available to fish.

But there has not yet been sufficient progress at a European level. Existing tools by themselves, which I support the full use of, will not result in a total solution to choke species in some areas.

So we must urgently explore other solutions - for example, to avoid choke risk, quota distribution must more accurately reflect the distribution and abundance of fish likely to be encountered on the grounds. North Sea hake is a perfect example of this type of mismatch whose distribution has shifted since current quota shares between Member States were fixed.

These and other tools will be discussed at the forthcoming Brussels negotiations and I shall make these points forcibly.

This year's talks are now well underway and have already delivered some strong results, including at the Coastal States and EU/Norway talks which together deliver more in economic terms than December Council.

At the October Coastal States talks for mackerel – our single most valuable stock – our officials were key in influencing the shape of a new long term management strategy for the stock.

This saw fishing levels aligned with the principles of Maximum Sustainable Yield and constrained the reduction in catching opportunities to 20% in 2018, worth around £130 million to the Scottish industry.

Coastal States talks on Blue Whiting and Atlanto-Scandian herring continue in Copenhagen and we are working hard to secure agreement hopefully today on a full five party deal that will deliver sustainable and sensible fishing levels for the coming year.

Last week's negotiations between the EU and Norway delivered increased catching opportunities for five of the six North Sea stocks that are jointly managed with Norway, with four of these six stocks now being fished at sustainable levels.

We also successfully secured a strong additional package of inward North Sea quota transfers from Norway aligned with priorities identified by our industry. This included increased tonnages of whiting, Norway Others and Norwegian monkfish compared to last year.

For North Sea whiting the combined effect of a 38% increase on the TAC combined with an additional inward transfer from Norway of 800 tonnes will give a significant increase in quota for this stock.

As such, Presiding Officer, there can now be absolutely no rationale for the UK government to continue to top slice Scottish Whiting quota for the sole benefit of English vessels and I expect this to cease immediately.

Of course, by their very definition, negotiations involve compromises so there were inevitably areas where we were unsuccessful in fully achieving our aims at the EU/Norway talks.

EU negotiators have continued to trade away saithe quota in both the North Sea and west of Scotland. This is a significant choke risk stock for Scotland in the North Sea and we remain firmly opposed in principle to giving away to Norway stocks that we remain short of ourselves.

This makes neither economic nor fishing sense and risks putting the industry in a difficult position under the landing obligation.

Furthermore, the EU has again retained an over-reliance on the use of northern Blue Whiting as a currency with which to bring in Arctic Cod quota from Norway. Within the EU bloc the UK is largest shareholder of Blue Whiting of which Scotland holds over 92%. Yet we do not receive a single tonne of the Arctic Cod coming back in return.

Despite these disappointments, I considered that on balance the incoming package of North Sea opportunities was stronger than last year and signalled a sufficient enough shift in the dynamics of the exchange with Norway to allow me to accept the deal on the table

The EU/Faroe talks are currently underway.

This agreement provides essential quota and access opportunities to Faroese waters for our whitefish fleet worth around £2 million. In return, Faroese vessels may fish a range of quota, including mackerel, in our waters.

While I accept this, I have previously made clear that I cannot accept how the level of Faroese access was fixed in 2014 via a private deal done by the Commission without any consultation with Member States.

I therefore welcomed the significant step forward at last year's talks which put this issue back on the negotiating table.

While I recognise that delivering a reduction from the current 30% access level is going to be very challenging, my officials will continue to pursue this goal during this week's talks.

Presiding Officer, next week I and my officials will attend December Council to conclude this year's negotiations where quotas for stocks fished solely by the EU fleet will be set.

Today, I seek input and views from across the Chamber as well as support for our approach.

My focus at Council will be to champion the interests of the industry and ensure that Scotland's interests are fully represented by the UK in discussions.

In general terms, the best possible outcome entails ensuring that scientific advice is realised as quota and resisting cuts which are not supported by scientific evidence. I will also seek to secure appropriate quota uplifts to support continued implementation of the landing obligation.

That includes seeking action on west of Scotland cod to provide the fleet with additional benefit while solutions are developed for resolving this significant choke risk.

I will pursue additional inter-area flexibility arrangements that allow the fleet to move quota between different sea areas to address choke risks.

Scottish industry will, as normal, be well represented at Council and I will discuss progress with them on a regular basis. Presiding Officer, the Autumn negotiations are complex but vital and Scottish Government officials are respected and listened to, for the expertise and knowledge they bring to the process.

However, what is straightforward is that they and I will work tirelessly to deploy all options available to us and deliver the best possible outcomes for our fishing interests and indeed our marine environment, enabling our industry, communities and economy to benefit from continued sustainable growth in 2018. I move the motion in my name.

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