Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Scottish Executive (T21)

  1.  This memorandum on behalf of the Scottish Executive is intended to explain the background to the announcement, on 8 March 2001 by Rhona Brankin, Scottish Fisheries Minister, of a £27 million package of aid for the Scottish fishing industry; and the detail of the support measures involved.


  2.  Some key fish stocks are in poor health, in part as a result of overfishing. The EU Fisheries Council decided in December 2000, on scientific advice, to reduce many total allowable catches (TACs) and quotas, some by a substantial proportion. This will reduce the tonnage and value of landings this year below their actual levels during 2000 and follows reductions in the overall value of landings during both 1999 and 2000. Whitefish stocks are most seriously affected.

  3.  Further EU conservation measures are under discussion and planned to enable key stocks to recover from their present state. Cod and hake recovery plans are being negotiated and are likely to incorporate measures (net mesh size increases etc) which will have a further impact on catches.

  4.  A central issue is fleet overcapacity, at EU and national level. Although the UK is currently largely within its EU fleet structure (MAGP IV) targets, there are too many boats chasing too few fish. This threatens the economic viability of individual vessels. These economic pressures have been exacerbated by recent fuel price increases. Economic pressure on fishermen in turn encourages over-quota catches or activities (such as "high grading" or evasion of technical gear measures) which are counter to fish conservation and sustainability aims.

  5.  The fish processing industry also faces pressures as a result of rising costs (due, for example, to burdens related to waste water handling requirements, veterinary inspections etc), reduced supply of raw materials and, particularly for primary processors, pressure on margins.


  6.  These issues pose particular challenges for Scotland. The majority of the UK interest in whitefish lies in Scotland and there is a high level of fisheries dependency in some areas.

  7.  Around two-thirds of landings of whitefish by UK fishing vessels are made by vessels based in Scotland; and roughly the same proportion of landings made into the UK are made into Scotland. Some 600 Scottish-based vessels have access, or (by virtue of the type of fishing licence they hold) potential access, to whitefish quotas. In practice, around 300 Scottish vessels, based primarily in the North East and Northern Isles, catch a significant quantity of the main whitefish stocks (cod, haddock, whiting, hake) of most concern. Most of the remainder catch significant proportions of nephrops and scallops, stocks of which are also under some pressure.

  8.  Fisheries dependency in Scotland is higher than elsewhere in the UK, with up to one third of all jobs in some areas dependent on fisheries. The Scottish whitefish fleet is heavily dependent on the stocks to which the greatest reductions in quota apply. Particular issues are posed for Scottish fishermen because of the mixed nature of their fishing and the high dependence on catches of haddock and, to a lesser extent, whiting—both smaller fish than cod and catches of which are therefore likely to be more significantly affected by selectivity (mesh size) measures. There are significant onshore processing industries which rely on locally caught supplies of fish. There is, in some of the remoter areas of Scotland in particular, little or no alternative employment.

  9.  The Scottish Fishermen's Federation (SFF) has made a case to the Scottish Executive for investment in the industry to aid conservation and the economic sustainabilty of the fleet in the form of a vessel decommissioning scheme and a temporary, compensated lay-up scheme. The latter scheme is intended to operate both in the short term while certain areas in the North Sea have been temporarily closed to fishing and also over a longer period until such time as stocks recover.

  10.  The issues facing the whitefish processing sector have been the subject of a report to Ministers by a joint Scottish White Fish Processing Action Group, which has set out a series of recommendations for action.


  11.  The response measures to be taken by the Scottish Executive, announced by Rhona Brankin on 8 March 2001, comprise a £27 million package of measures including:

    —  up to £25 million for decommissioning;

    —  £1 million to implement recommendations in the Scottish Fish Processing Action Group report; and

    —  £1 million for a "scientific partnership" between fishermen and scientists; aimed at involving the industry in research projects to improve conservation.

  12.  Funding for the measures has been found by bringing forward expenditure provision in the Scottish Executive's fisheries structural funding (FIFG) programmes and by reallocating uncommitted expenditure from within the Scottish Executive.

  13.  Support from other areas for fisheries-related issues may be available—for example from the enterprise networks in Scotland or national programmes to deal with the employment effects of industry re-structuring; or, in relevant areas, from EC structural funds to promote diversification away from fisheries dependency.

  14.  The Executive has declined to provide support for compensated vessel lay-ups because it has not been persuaded of the conservation effects of a short-term scheme or that the commitment of public funds either in the short or longer term for this purpose would represent value for money. It believes—and recent scientific research suggests—that sustainable fisheries can be undertaken using recommended gear selectivity enhancements. Continued, sustainable fishing also helps ensure continuity of supply for processors already subject to reduced availability of raw materials.


  15.  Details of the proposed decommissioning scheme are being worked up, in consultation with industry and the other Fisheries Departments in the UK. It is intended that the scheme, which will remove vessels and fishing vessel licences from the closed system of licences which operates in the UK, will operate through competitive bids from eligible fishermen. The main objective for the scheme will be to remove fishing capacity targeting the key threatened whitefish stocks, although appropriate weight may be given to other benefits (eg the removal of nephrops/scallops capacity). It is hoped to launch the scheme, which will require Scottish legislation and EC State Aid approval) by the summer.

  16.  Discussions with scientists and the industry are also underway on the scientific research partnership. Agreement has been reached on a programme of conservation research. A number of initiatives are already underway involving the chartering of fishing vessels for research work. Depending on the progress of further discussions, there may be some adaptation of the balance of resource commitment between the research partnership and decommissioning.

  17.  The Executive has also accepted the majority of the recommendations in the Processing Working Group report. Some actions do not require central Government funding. Support will however be provided for a range of initiatives including developing systems for e-commerce; joint ventures; and the creation of a quality accredition scheme for fish processors. Appropriate weight will also be given, in considering bids from processors for FIFG support under the Scottish programmes, to actions highlighted in the Group's report and which fit with strategic priorities.


  18.  The foregoing is offered by way of information to the Select Committee, on behalf of the Scottish Executive.

8 May 2001

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