Thursday, 31 July 2014

The untold story of who owns rights to Scottish fish

From my Daily Record column

Ever wondered how Manchester United might have the right to take a fishing boat out into Scottish waters? Read on.

Listen in the bars of Scotland's ports and you'd think fishing was a permanent open season for Spanish pirates. This is not even half true.

Some brilliant research by Emma Cardwell, an Oxford PhD student, lifts the lid on the ownership of UK fishing grounds, a system described as the biggest grab on traditional rights since the Norman Conquest.

In 1999 the UK government introduced a quota system to conserve fish stocks. It did this by dividing up the right to fish on a historic basis

Small boat owners, the vast majority of British fishermen, were allocated less than five per cent of the total catch. 

Larger vessel owners were given property rights over fish based on their historic catches.

So, the more you had raped the seas the more quota you were given. Well-financed buccaneers were rewarded, small fishing communities went to the wall.

Here in the Hebrides, where they still mourn the extinction of herring by east coast trawlers, people know how mad this was.

At one time thousands of boats caught mackerel and herring around Britain's coast. Now the quota, almost half of total landings by UK registered vessels, is caught by 33 trawlers.

In the private market wealth accumulates itself and the right to fish inevitably ended up in the hands of a few companies with quota used as collateral for loans for more powerful boats.

In Scotland quota ownership is now consolidated in ports like Peterhead and Lerwick, home to sea roaming supertrawlers.

The value of these boats, and their quota rights, runs to hundreds of millions of pounds.

Despite a register, who actually owns the quotas is opaque. Hence the pub tales of large institutions, like Man United and RBS, having a  stake in the industry. 
This is the untold story of Scottish fishing. A national asset has been handed to profiteering fishing barons. It is manifestly inequitable, bad for conservation and destroys coastal economies.    

Think independence will solve it? In Iceland, where fishing companies have deep links to politics, wresting fishing rights back into public ownership has been nigh on impossible.

North Atlantic fishing is a millionaires club, with small communities reduced to scraping a living from shellfish.

Who in Scotland will stand up for a fair distribution of fishing rights that gives coastal communities a chance of survival?

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Lights out for 1914, Lamps on for the Iolaire in 1919

From my Daily Record column

Last week I caught up with Dan Jarvis MP, who gained the PM's backing for a centenary event to commemorate the beginning of the First World War.

The powerful plan for a "lights out" hour at 10pm on 4th August recalls the famous Sir Edward Grey quote about "the lamps going out across Europe" in autumn 1914.

By August on Lewis, where I am, we're only in the gloaming. But the idea dovetails into one of my own to mark the end of the war in 1919 at home.

That's right, 1919, it was in the early hours of New Year's Day that the biggest wartime tragedy to affect the Hebrides occurred.

The HMY Iolaire ran onto rocks, a mile from Stornoway Harbour and 181 servicemen, returning from war, were drowned in sight of home. Every island community was affected.

After an horrendous war the Iolaire disaster did not merit much national attention, but the tragedy defined 20th century Lewis, mourning and a sense of victimhood led to mass emigration. 

The history is well told but I think a visual representation of the effect on so many villages would make a centenary tribute. 

The idea would be to darken the island on Hogmanay leading to 2019 - but leave the "lamps on" in the homes of those lost.  

We know their names and every welcome threshold veterans were expected to cross, but never did.

Six in this village, seven in the next, a necklace of white lights across the island. 

One by one the beams could go up until there are 181 pillars of light in the New Year sky, guiding the Iolaire men home.