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Stormy times for Scottish fishermen

Peter Geoghegan, Peterhead, ScotlandSeptember 5, 2016

Most Scottish fishermen voted in favor of Brexit arguing it would give them greater control over fishing rights. However, as Peter Geoghegan reports from Peterhead, that may have been wishful thinking.

Schottland Fischerei-Industrie in Peterhead
Image: DW/P. Geoghegan

Europe's largest white fish market is a squat, nondescript building on the docks at Peterhead, a small town in northeast Scotland. Inside, blue plastic boxes filled with haddock and hake, halibut and cod, line the long refrigerated sales room. Buyers and agents representing local fishermen haggle good humoredly over prices.

Business is booming. Within a couple of hours almost all the fish has been sold, packed in ice destined for restaurants and dining rooms across Europe. Last year sales in Peterhead totalled some £180 million (215 million euros, $240 million). 2016 is on course to be even busier.

Nevertheless, not all is well in Peterhead. Despite the recent upturn, fishing here has been in decline for decades. An estimated 450 vessels fished out of the tight, granite-hewn port when the UK joined the EU in 1975, now that figure is around 100.

Many in Peterhead blame the European Union for their industry's decline. Most Scottish fishermen supported Brexit. After decades of EU rule, they want much greater control over fishing in the wild North Sea - but, like so many, are at the mercy of negotiations between EU and UK leaders.

Trawlerman Jimmy Buchan has spent more than four decades fishing from Peterhead. During that time, he says, the Common Fisheries Policy has given foreign fleets unfettered access to Scottish waters, decimating the local fishing industry. For Buchan, Brexit "is a great opportunity we have long waited for."

fish market copyright: Peter Geoghegan
For years Scotland's fishing industry has been in decline - and Brexit could make things worseImage: DW/P. Geoghegan

Tough talks

"It now gets down to the negotiation,” Buchan told DW. "When you go into negotiation you don't expect to get 100 percent of what you want. Good negotiation means give as well as take. It's a game of chess but we are hopeful of coming out on top at the end of it."

History, however, is not on the fishermen's side. In the early 1970s, then-Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath accepted full access to British waters as the price for entering the Common Market. Now many in Peterhead are worried that their industry could once again become a bargaining chip for both the UK and Scottish governments.

"There is concern that we will be sold down the river again by government," says fisherman Peter Bruce. He would like to see Article 50 invoked quickly but that is unlikely, not least because Scotland's nationalist-controlled devolved government remains committed to remaining in the EU.

Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. Officially the Scottish government's "priority continues to be pursuing all options to protect Scotland's relationship with the EU." But within hours of the announcement of the result Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon declared a second referendum on independence "highly likely" to protect Scotland's place in Europe.

No to independence

Last week, the Scottish National Party leader announced the start of a new drive for independence. But such calls have little appeal among the fishermen of Peterhead.

"Every fisherman I know has absolutely turned against (Ms Sturgeon) and her government," says Jimmy Buchan. "The fishing industry is a huge part of the Scottish economy, for her to turn her back on such an important industry shows she only has one thing on her agenda, and that's the politics of division."

At present, fisheries represent around 0.5 percent of Scottish GDP. Industry representatives believe that figure could increase if the access of foreign fleets to UK waters is curtailed post-Brexit.

Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producer's Association, says that the overfishing of the past will not return, but local fishermen will have preferential access to the North Sea. "The total fish that comes out of the sea won't change but who gets what will change," he told DW.

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, welcomes the end the Common Fisheries Policy. The cornerstone of EU fishing regulation - introduced in part to curb overfishing - has been "distant, centralised and monumentally inefficient," says Armstrong.

Driving the economy

"Having been seriously damaged in the cause of EU entry, the fishing industry must not be damaged at EU exit, especially when there is so much potential to deliver economic benefit to the UK," he told DW. "But make no mistake, the size of the prize is enormous, and if the right deal is reached on Brexit, it will turn us back into a world-class seafood harvesting and exporting country."

Peterhead has weathered many storms over the years. A ring of imposing granite houses overlooking the port and a name, Blubber Quay, are all that remain of the whaling industry that dominated in the 1800s. The 20th century saw the death of the herring industry and the arrival of motorised trawlers.

fish on display copyright: Peter Geoghegan
Things could indeed turn uglyImage: DW/P. Geoghegan

Many fishermen hope that local control will reinvigorate their industry. But this will come at a price. Since 2007, Scotland's fishing industry has received £77 million from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. Later this year, a £49 million redevelopment of Peterhead port will begin, partly funded by the European Union.

Ian Laidlaw, Peterhead port authority chief executive, says that it is too early to tell whether leaving the EU really will be the boon that many fishermen hope. But he is wary of the impact of leaving the EU and the on-going question of Scottish independence.

"Regardless of your political colors uncertainty is never good for business," Laidlaw told DW. "There is going to be trade offs. Until the negotiations we don't know if we are better off or worse off. People didn't quite appreciate how long Brexit would take and how complex the process would be."