Thursday, 31 December 2015

Fishermen vs environmental colonialists - the unequal battle over Marine Protected Areas

My column for the Daily Record

What do Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead, an American Insurance charity and a board member of broadcaster BSkyB have in common?

Read on for an insight into how political power is wielded in the new Scotland.

Last week while the rest of us were mulling the choice between prawn cocktail and smoked salmon fishermen on the Clyde coast and Western Isles were scrambling to save their industry and way of life.

That was because Richard Lochhead, the SNP Fisheries Minister, delivered an early Christmas present by extending consultation over plans for a network of Marine Protected Areas by a mere month.

Announcing a short consultation over the festive season smacks of cynicism. Fishermen's leaders say these conservation zones would ban trawling and dredging for shellfish and so destroy fishing communities.

With politicians of every stripe representing on the west coast telling him he is wrong, who is telling Richard Lochhead he is right to press ahead with MPAs?

Well, ranged against the fishermen are a well-financed and well-connected network of conservation organisations.

Stunning amounts of money are used to cherry pick science and lobby politicians with a slew of data that portrays fishermen as plunderers.

A web of inter-connected environmental organisations ply the waters of Scotland and the corridors of Holyrood.

The Marine Conservation Society had £10 million at its disposal over the last four years. 

Scottish Environmental Link, the umbrella organisation for conservation bodies,  raised over £400,000 in the last three years. Revive the Clyde, closely linked to SIFT, a similar amount in two years.

The BSkyB connection comes through Nick Ferguson, chair of corporate governance at the broadcaster and a noted philanthropist who supports projects that benefit young and old in Argyll, where he has a holiday home.

He was also on the advisory board of SIFT, the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust, that has applied for Regulating Order covering the Firth of Clyde. Such an order would grant power over who fishes and who does not. 

No prize for guessing how the "community" interest would stack in that situation. But prizes galore for one side of the debate.

The Goldman Foundation, funded by the legacy of a wealthy family of American insurers, gave their annual prize of  $175,000 prize to Coast, a self-appointed group campaigning for the South Arran seabed to become an MPA. Coast had an income of over £500,000 in the last three years, charity returns show.

Let's be honest, some fishermen are greedy rogues that took some species to extinction. However, regulation and voluntary participation in conservation measures, like increased mesh sizes, have taken the industry and stocks back from the cliff edge.

For me the jury is out on prawn trawling and scallop dredging. Dredging the seabed for shellfish was once described to me as cutting down orchards to pick apples.

Objectors say it destroys everything, fishermen say it renews the bottom, just as ploughing enriches the soil in an onshore field

The science and effectiveness of conservation zones is hotly disputed but the fishermen are right in one respect.

Whatever the damage to the seabed by fishing, that will be as nothing compared to the damage done to coastal communities if a whole sector of the fishing industry is banned.

Sterilising the west coast as a playground for the gin palaces of the rich and for rigid inflatables is not a viable plan to replace working communities.

After the thin varnish of consultation next month expect the pretence of "community" control of these protected areas.

But follow the money and you will see ultimate control of a campaign to effectively kill off our fishing communities rests in America and in London.

It is the kind of colonial environmentalism that, were it being targeted an the fragile population of an  Amazonian jungle, would have Scotland's right-on brigade indignant with fury.

Instead all that power and finance is being brought to bear on closing down the prawn fishery, the only major fishing industry left on the Clyde and west coast.

All this is all being done with the complicity of a government whose main selling point is self-determination and standing up for Scotland. Exactly which part of Scotland, fishermen ask?

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