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11 December 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:08pm

Meet the Scots who can’t wait to finish Brexit and get out of the EU

They’re also very keen on migrant workers. 

By Nick Drainey

In 1986, when he was 26, Jimmy Buchan borrowed £200,000 to buy his first trawler in Peterhead, a town on the north-east coast of Scotland. Three decades and a referendum result later on, he is in no doubt about the advantages Brexit can bring. “This is not about taking control and going fishing like there was no tomorrow,” he says. “But I was a fisherman for 40 years who supported Brexit because I lived being constantly under pressure from the EU to live within the rules and regulations, which we didn’t always agree on.”

Since 23 June 2016, Scotland has become the pro-EU voice of the UK. All regions voted to remain in the EU, while in both Holyrood and Westminster, the Scottish National Party has become one of the most consistent critics of Brexit. 

Yet there is one community that feels distinctly differently. After decades of being at loggerheads with EU, the Scottish fishing industry wants Brexit to be swiftly completed so it can take advantage of fishing rights and increase exports across the globe. 

Like the hard Brexiteers in the Tory party, the fishermen and processors do not see the need for a two-year transition period promoted by Theresa May. After years of accusations of over-fishing and strict quotas, the Scottish fishing industry is gearing up to take its place on the world stage, alongside iconic products such as whisky and salmon.

But unlike some of May’s biggest critics on the right, the fishing industry in Scotland is well aware of the costs of curbing immigration. Access to a labour force is important as well, with at least 2,500 (or around 70 per cent) of those employed in fish processing plants in the north east of Scotland being migrant workers.

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“We have become very dependent, especially up in north east Scotland, on migrant labour … it is quite a significant part of our needs,” says Buchan, who is also business manager for the Scottish Seafood Association (SSA) – the trade body representing processors in Scotland. “Any negotiation which cuts off access to labour could be detrimental.”

As well as allowing migrant workers, Buchan wants help from the Scottish government to promote work in the processing sector to school-leavers as a good job prospect, working with internationally-respected produce.

But the former skipper, who starred in the BBC TV series Trawlermen, documenting the perilous work of fishermen, believes the end of EU regulation will safeguard the future of a Scottish fishing industry which is now sustainable after decades of decline.

“The regulation will come from the state, which we will have much better control of. In Scotland, we really are trailblazers in adopting change and making change for the better where fisheries will be better managed in a more sustainable manner.”

One of the questions that remains unanswered about a final Brexit deal is which powers are repatriated to Westminster, and which to devolved administrations.

Five years ago, Scotland introduced closed areas which meant Scots fishermen did not fish in some parts of the sea to allow cod to spawn. Despite English and European boats still being allowed to trawl the areas, Buchan points to a great success story.

“We have now seen the cod stocks recover to such a state that in July this year, a species which was supposed to go extinct, is now an MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) accredited stock.

“That is a clear outcome of taking severe measures to protect a fishery.”

Buchan hopes the principle of a concordat between Westminster and Holyrood will continue after Brexit, meaning that Scottish fisheries are governed by the Scottish government.

“Politically things are really live and tense, because no one wants to be seen to be weak but at the end of the day it is a negotiation,” he says. “There is a huge amount at stake here but the Scottish fishermen and the Scottish government, along with Westminster, are very aware that if we do take the control back we will manage it, and probably manage it better because we have the control mechanism to control who comes into our waters and how much they can fish.”

Jimmy Buchan’s trawler

Although the Leave campaigners used fishing boats symbolically during the EU referendum, the idea that the fishing industry should welcome a hard Brexit is not as obvious as it might seem. The EU market makes up 70 per cent of the seafood sector’s exports. 

For Buchan, though, the threat of trade tariffs is an opportunity. 

“Let us say it is a hard Brexit and there is no deal, overnight the Spanish and French will be kicked out of the western waters,” he says. “That will have a huge effect on where the EU countries get their fish, which means we may have a market even if we have to pay a tariff.”

Down the coast in Aberdeen, a city dominated by oil but with a proud fishing tradition, Bertie Armstrong, the chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, expressed the need for urgency in Scotland taking control of its own waters once Brexit is in place and the Common Fisheries Policy is left behind.

He is urging both governments to support a nine-month “bridge” after March 2019 to smooth the exit from the Common Fisheries Policy.

The fish caught by UK vessels is worth around £1bn a year, but the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation say non-UK vessels catch almost 60 per cent of the fish in UK waters under the common access granted by the Common Fisheries Policy. Armstrong points out that while the UK is left with 40 per cent of its own fish, Norway currently takes 84 per cent of catches in its seas, and Iceland 90 per cent.

Armstrong describes Brexit as “a sea of opportunity”, and one that should not be compromised: “There must be no negotiation that stops the UK having its proper sovereign rights and responsibilities under international law.”

In October, a YouGov poll commissioned by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, found almost two-thirds of the public believe access to UK waters should be blocked or limited for EU fishing boats after Brexit. Roughly a third said vessels must be allowed in only under strict rules while 27 per cent thought they must be kept out.

Meanwhile 56 per cent of people agreed with the Federation’s stance that exiting the Common Fisheries Policy will provide greater opportunities for UK fishermen, to just 10 per cent who disagree.

Armstrong does not see all the fishing rights remaining with UK but being a member of the Coastal States Agreement, including Norway, the Faroes, Iceland and the EU will mean it has a greater say on access to UK waters.

In his eyes, the key to the resurgence of Scotland as a fishing nation is not access to the single market, but making fish stocks sustainable. “Europe often says, ‘you sell a lot of your fish to us, therefore you need our market’,” he says. “Bollocks is the answer to that – there are 33 nations in the single market and about half a billion people, there are seven billion people and 200 nations in the rest of the world.”

Back in Peterhead, Buchan is looking forward to a big future for Scottish seafood and wants government help to pace on the top tables of the world, in the same way whisky and salmon is.

And he warns politicians need to listen to the industry. While the defeat of SNP heavyweights Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson in the 2017 snap election have been generally attributed to opposition to independence, Buchan says the real reason the pro-EU politicians lost their north-east Scotland seats was because the communities had rejected the EU.

“These were coastal constituencies where people saw the value and opportunity of having the fishery outside of EU control,” he says. “They were strong politicians but they wanted to go in the opposite direction and the outcome was they lost their jobs. That is democracy working at its best; people were unhappy with the direction they were being taken, and they voted.”

Buchan says Brexit will open up global markets. “We have some of the finest seafood in the world between our crabs, lobsters, scallops, langoustines, cod and monkfish – it is all high value, quality. The Scottish brand is a very strong brand which is why Scottish salmon has done so well.

“Government need to see that opportunity, to look at the success of the whisky and salmon exports and see what they can do for the seafood sector.”

Successful marketing will be difficult with calls for an independent Scotland never far away and an often acrimonious relationship between Westminster and the Scottish government, Buchan warns.

“Politics is playing a part in this. The nationalist’s agenda is for division and you have Westminster as the over-arching state. Heads need to be banged together and (they ask themselves) what is the best for the economic benefits of the people we represent.

“We may then have a situation where everyone benefits out of it.”

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