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In deep, stormy waters: Scotland, the UK and the politics of fishing

Updated Wednesday, 13th January 2021

Four of the top five UK ports for landed weight are in Scotland. Is there a possibility of an independent Scotland opting to become an EU member re-joining the EUs Common Fisheries Policy?

The UK’s fishing industry has been long in decline, certainly a process predating EU membership. The outcome of the Cod Wars was a deal with Iceland that hit some of the major fishing communities hard. While the industry is now only a shadow of its former self, nonetheless in an island country such as the UK, fishing has long had an emotive and symbolic presence, and this has continued. 

The decline of the industry over the past half century or so has also led to a shift in the importance of different fishing ports in different parts of the UK. In 2019, in terms of fish landings, the top 4 ports are in Scotland, with 9 Scottish ports in the top 20.

Scottish ports in the UK top 20 by landed weight

Four of the top five UK ports for landed weight are in Scotland. Peterhead lands over ten times the weight of Brixham, the largest English port.

In descending order of catch, the Scottish locations are:

  • Peterhead
  • Lerwick (pictured above)
  • Fraserburgh
  • Scrabster
  • Ullapool
  • Kinlochbervie
  • Scalloway and Isles
  • Cullivoe
  • Mallaig.

The relative importance of Scottish fishing ports raises a number of thorny and contentious issues, which are likely to unfold and become more significant in the post-Brexit era.

The response of the Scottish National Party-led Scottish Government to the threat of Royal Navy vessels being used to patrol UK waters was to deem such an idea as, to quote SNP Europe Secretary, Mike Russell, ‘utterly insane’, commenting that ‘We have a very competent force that is in place, but we do not call upon the navy to do these matters, and any military intervention in Scotland in civil matters would require the consent of the Chief Constable (of Police Scotland)’.

SNP Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, also commented that: "UK Government gunboat diplomacy is not welcome in Scottish waters. We will protect our fisheries, but we won't do that by threatening our NATO allies, our friends and neighbours."

He later tweeted: "62 percent of UK EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) is in Scotland. Police Scot and Marine Scot will protect fisheries if necessary, chief constable has primacy. UK Government has confirmed with me Royal Navy will not be deployed unless chief constable requests."

Despite the claims made by these Scottish Government Ministers, on January 1, 2021 a vessel, apparently, though not confirmed as a Scottish patrol boat, stopped an Irish registered trawler from fishing within 12 miles of the disputed Rockall fishing grounds in the Atlantic.

Newspaper headlines from the Scottish-Independence supporting The National (pictured below), and the pro-UK and strongly unionist Express, have reflected the major fault-line that characterises not only Scottish politics, but a fracture which has the potential to tear the UK apart, at least the UK in the shape and form that it is in 2021. That the Scottish Government was quick to respond to the announcement that the Royal Navy would be ready to patrol UK waters reflects this tension, though it is difficult to see how the Scottish Government could prevent naval vessels from plying the seas off the coast of Scotland.

The National headline on Scottish fishing Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The National

 

Not surprisingly, the unionist press and several Conservative opposition politicians in Scotland were also quick to criticise the views of the Scottish Government as overstepping the mark and to remind the SNP that the waters off the coasts of Scotland are UK waters.

The SNP is strongly opposed to the presence of nuclear weapons on the west coast of Scotland, with Royal Navy submarines a regular presence on the Firth of Clyde, and it would not be difficult to argue that it has as much chance of stopping the submarines from sailing off the west coast as it has in stopping Royal Navy patrol vessels policing UK waters off of other Scottish coasts. Not surprisingly, the unionist press and several Conservative opposition politicians in Scotland were also quick to criticise the views of the Scottish Government as overstepping the mark and to remind the SNP that the waters off the coasts of Scotland are UK waters.

The more fundamental point of contention surrounds the demands of the SNP that Scottish Government Ministers are given a say in any international fishing negotiations following Brexit. Behind this lies the possibility of an independent Scotland opting that became an EU member re-joining the EUs Common Fisheries Policy which, for Scottish Conservatives, further erode the position of Scotland’s fishing industry, as well as potentially deny access to the rich seas off Scotland to boats from the remainder of the UK.

For Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross MP, whose Moray seat contains a number of important fishing communities said: "The SNP's rhetoric on fishing is pathetic. Despite all their empty words, the fact is they want to take Scotland back into the hated Common Fisheries Policy. They would rather bow down to Brussels than hand power back to fishermen and communities across Scotland. The UK is becoming an independent coastal state and taking back control of our waters, while the SNP are desperate to sell out our fishermen at the first chance they get".

 

Acknowledgements, sources and references

Acknowledgement

Dr Gerry Mooney would like to thank Dr Peter Wood for his background research with this article.

Sources

Parker, G. and Brunsden, J. (2020) ‘UK fishing industry caught between rock and hard place on trade talks’, Financial Times, December 1, 2020:
https://www-ft-com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/content/4f224474-4604-431a-9752-0e5cf00c67bd

‘SNP minister Michael Russell rules out using force in Scottish fishing waters if no-deal Brexit’:
https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/18941127.russell-rules-using-force-scottish-fishing-waters-no-deal/

The National, December 12, 2020:
https://www.thenational.scot/news/18940091.brexit-royal-navy-will-not-deployed-scottish-waters-humza-yousaf-says/

The Express, December 12, 2020:
https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/1371876/Brexit-news-fisheries-SNP-Scotland-British-waters-fishing-France-no-deal-latest-vn?jwsource=cl

Crichton, T, (2020) “SNP and Tories clash ahead of Brexit Fisheries Bill vote” The Daily Record, 1 Sept 2020:
https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/snp-tories-clash-ahead-brexit-22606613

References

Marine Information Scotland/Scottish Government, ‘12 Nautical Miles (12m) limit - Scottish territorial seas - Territorial Sea Act 1987 / Scotland Act 1998’:
http://marine.gov.scot/information/12-nautical-miles-12m-limit-scottish-territorial-seas-territorial-sea-act-1987-scotland.

Kate Whitfield, ‘Brexit fishing map: The vast body of UK waters at risk from EU fishing - even after Brexit’, The Express, August 21, 2019.

 

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