Fishing would still be under the control of Europe in an independent Scotland, but Scottish ministers would be in a stronger positions to fight for larger quotas.
That was the view expressed by Richard Lochhead, the cabinet secretary for rural affairs and environment, when explaining to an audience in Eyemouth how the Scottish fishing industry would be affected if there is a ‘Yes’ vote in September’s independence referendum.
His visit is one of many being made around the country by cabinet ministers over the coming months as the SNP attempts to sell its vision of Scotland’s future as an independent country.
The future of Berwickshire’s fishing industry was top of the agenda at the question and answer session in Eyemouth’s Hippodrome.
It probably didn’t come as any surprise to Mr Lochhead that the questions kept returning time and again to fishing and fish quotas.
Kicking off proceedings was retired fisherman and harbour master Johnny Johnston, who asked: “Will we have complete control of our fishing limits and complete control of our quotas? Or will we still be under the rule of Europe which has been our downfall?
“There used to be 55 boats in Eyemouth and 300 men working on them. Now there are less than 10 with an average of three men. What the Scottish Government must remember is that for harbours around the UK, fishing is the heart of the economy and that heart is barely beating at the moment.”
Responding, Mr Lochhead said: “We want to be in Europe. We feel it’s best for Scotland and at least we will have our own voice.
“If you are independent you can protect your own fishing quotas. You can only do that as a member state. The UK government didn’t support that policy, so let’s get our own voice.”
Fishing quotas and the fact that they are often owned by people who aren’t actually fishing but lease them to fishermen is one of the biggest issues facing Berwickshire fishermen.
One former fisherman said he came from a family of local fishermen but was no longer working in the industry because he had no quota.
He asked: “Will getting independence allow my son to re-enter the fishing industry?”
Mr Lochhead replied: “This is why we are looking at the future of quotas. All fishing should be in the hands of fishermen.
“We have to find a way to get new entrants into the industry otherwise the next generation will be squeezed out.”
However, he was challenged about this by another fisherman, who pointed out that the current Scottish fleets’ quotas are inadequate making it hard for fishermen to make ends meet.
“How can you divide a resource that is completely inadequate as it is and at the same time support new entrants?
“I understand your position is there will be no problem being into Europe but if you have to negotiate your way in can you guarantee that what is only a small part of a larger organisation won’t be traded off in your negotiations with Europe?”
Mr Lochhead replied: “I don’t believe any Scottish government will trade off fishing.
A representative from the Anglo Scottish Fish Producers Organisation wanted to know whether the UK’s current quota will be split or whether there would be two new settlements if Scotland votes ‘Yes’.
“The system we have is being reviewed in the UK and Scotland, so who owns quotas is very important,” said Mr Lochhead.
“We want it to be in the hands of active fishermen. We want to stop the UK Government top slicing some of the quota for the south west English fleet before splitting the rest between the rest of the UK.
“We have to get this right if we didn’t take this opportunity potentially we could lose all Scottish fishing. It’s important ownership isn’t sold outside of Scotland.”
When asked in fish quotas would increase in an independent Scotland, Mr Lochhead said: “I think there is every chance they will because the stocks are doing well. What I do know is that we will be able to safeguard our quota and get the best deal for Scotland. UK colleagues have different priorities.”
Graham Sinclair, chair of Eyemouth Harbour Trust wanted to know how trust ports like Eyemouth would be governed in an independent Scotland. Mr Lochhead told him: “We would listen to the views of people so you would have the opportunity as a harbour trust to make representations directly to the Scottish Transport Minister who would be in charge of Scottish ports if Scotland became independent.”