Scottish Skipper Expo 2023: Rural Affairs Secretary speech

Speech delivered by Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands Mairi Gougeon at the Scottish Skipper Expo on 12 May 2023.

I am delighted to be here again at the Skippers Expo, and thoroughly enjoyed my visit last year.

I have met with many of you through the year and it’s great to see the entrepreneurship and innovation shown by the fishing industry.

We are blessed in Scotland to have rich and vibrant seas, and a management system which supports them.

Scotland is respected in international fisheries, in large part down to the joint-working between Government and industry. 

Over the years we have worked closely together to drive better outcomes, and deliver improvements to how we fish and the way in which we use our seas.

We need to get back to that cooperative engagement to make change happen and build on the foundations we have for a better future for all.

I know times are really challenging, there are concerns over what the future holds, and this tests the close relationships that we have.

But events like this demonstrate the importance of fishing to our economy and communities and shine a spotlight on the real passion, dedication and resilience you bring day in, day out to rise to the challenges you face.

Of course, while some of the pressure the sector is facing – such as the impacts of Covid and the war in Ukraine – have been largely beyond control, much of it also arises from broken Brexit promises, and the UK Government’s approach since then.

That includes, for example, significant trade barriers that continue to reduce export competitiveness and value, longstanding UK Government underinvestment in our marine sector, and a hostile UK immigration policy that has exacerbated labour shortages and rural depopulation.

I know some of you will hold a different view, but it remains clear to me that independence, and reversing the harms of Brexit, continues to offer the best future for Scottish fishing and wider seafood sector.

Against the backdrop of our challenging times, I know that there can be uncertainty about the place that fishing has in Scotland and the space that will be available to operate in.

The way we use our sea is evolving at pace, and the competition for marine space is ever more intense. 

In amongst this competition we are also focussed on protecting areas of the sea.

We are already delivering good outcomes, but need to deliver better. If we want coastal communities and our historic fishing industry to thrive in the future, things need to change.

I want to make change happen and find a way through our current challenges – but we need your help to do so.

People are worried what change might mean for our coastal communities.

But change is needed in order to help to sustain and restore our fisheries for the future, and the communities and people that depend on them.

Our knowledge about the impact of human activity on the seabed, the need to guard against biodiversity loss and mitigate against climate change, drives us to seek improvements. 

Key to this are our actions as part of the UK Marine Strategy, continuing to work to achieve Good Environmental Status. 

This means taking measures to improve our marine environment, but it also requires us to balance the sustainable use of marine resources.

You know, as much as I do, that the economic and social benefits of fishing must be carefully balanced against these environmental drivers. 

I want you to hear me when I say – Scotland’s fishing industry is the lifeblood of our  coastal Scotland.  This industry is important. 

It is important for the jobs, people and families it supports; it is important for the food it provides; and for the way of life that it sustains.

You are key to the future prosperity of our coastal communities. 

Whatever the shape of our marine environment in the future, there must always be space for fishing – the fishing industry must and will survive and thrive. 

I know that’s what you want, and it is firmly what the Government wants too.  We also know that the industry must evolve, and want to work with you on this, using the principles of co-management that we hold dearly.

These aren’t just warm words.  The investment that the Scottish Government already makes in the fishing industry and wider seafood sector is significant, and demonstrates that commitment.

Just a few weeks ago, we launched a new round of Marine Fund Scotland worth £14m, to support many seafood businesses to invest, encouraging  innovation and improved sustainability in line with our Blue Economy Vision.

This is on top of awards of just over £13 million in grant funding to 60 projects through the Marine Fund Scotland last year.  This included support programmes developed by Seafood Scotland to grow and develop national and international awareness of our premium seafood such as langoustines.

We invest more than £9million a year in our world-leading science programme to ensure our stocks are fished at sustainable levels. 

The fishing industry plays a crucial role in this – with £1.2m provided over the last two years through Marine Fund Scotland to the observer scheme you run on our behalf. 

We need to build on this and fully explore and enable the industry to weave their expertise into our knowledge to help us make the right policy decisions.

Our investment also includes nearly £22million a year in our enforcement activity.  This helps deliver confidence and accountability in our sea fisheries which in turn supports a positive brand and market place for Scottish seafood. 

We are building on this foundation to modernise and make best use of new technology, for example through the introduction of Remote Electronic Monitoring to key parts of the fishing fleet.

We have also promoted fishing as a safe and attractive career through £440,000 grant funding for safety training; and £2.1m of support to encourage young fishers to enter and develop their careers in fishing. 

And of course our team of fisheries negotiators continue to work tirelessly to secure optimal fishing opportunities at sustainable levels for the fleet.

Last year we secured £486 million in fishing opportunities, helping the Scottish industry to continue to provide a source of healthy food and supporting our export and domestic markets.  With £1.6m invested through the Marine Fund Scotland to support the marketing of Scottish seafood in those markets. 

Together, we should be shouting more about our approach and our successes. 

We should be encouraging investment, displaying confidence in ourselves and signalling that we are open for business.

Scotland has a world renowned seafood sector bringing so much to our economy and communities.

Our waters provide some of the world’s finest seafood – providing a valuable, low carbon, high-quality protein resource that has been harvested by you  for generations.

Scotland’s seafood was the single largest overseas food export worth £1 billion in 2022, a significant proportion of which was thanks to the fish and shellfish landed by Scottish vessels and into Scotland.

Scotland is one of Europe's largest seafood producers. Peterhead port, just up the road has the largest white fish landings in Europe. You  land over 40% of the world’s supply of langoustines – let's hear more about that.

Scottish seafood remains at the forefront of sustainable practices.

Our strength in regulations, voluntary schemes and accreditations help guarantee a high standards across the industry, helping reassure buyers across the world that our seafood conforms to the highest standards.

As we outlined in our Strategy for Seafood, Scotland’s marine environment and our seafood sector play an important role in our economic security in terms of export value, as well as our domestic food security. So, thank you to each and everyone of you for your vital contributions to Scotland’s economy.

I look forward to speaking with many of you as I tour round the stands today, and the lively conversations which I’m sure we will have.

I’ll finish by saying that the Expo is now officially open for business, wishing the event every success.

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