Fish Discard Ban: We all suffer when ‘responsibility’ is deemed ‘gloriously open to interpretation’


What’s that old line from the Marx Brothers film, ‘Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?’ It came to mind during recent discussions with Scottish Government officials over their interpretation of the rules governing the discard ban.

At issue is the disposal of unwanted fish shoreside.  As the MEP sitting in the room when the ‘landings obligation’ of the discard ban was being negotiated, I found it a bit rich that Scottish officials were now explaining to me what my amendment on shoreside responsibility actually meant in practice. Here is the amendment:

'Member States shall have in place measures to facilitate their storage or for finding outlets for [undersized fish], such as support for investment in the construction and adaptation of landing sites and shelters, or support for investments to add value to fishery products'

Having been told by Scottish Government officials that the amendment didn’t mean what it was meant to mean, I decided to speak to my fellow MEP, Alain Cadec, the chair of the European Parliament Fisheries Committee, and the lead parliamentary negotiator on the discard ban.  I asked him specifically about where the liability lay in dealing with the shoreside disposal of unwanted fish.  Here is the straight-talking Frenchman in his own words:

'the agreement between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers is clear. Member States have to bear their responsibility concerning storage and outlets of non-marketable, undersized fish. It is an agreement we made with Council during trilogue. Parliament will be uncompromising on the implementation of this agreement.'

The situation is all the more perplexing because in the correspondence shared by the Shetland Fishermen’s Association, a lead official states that the above clause is ‘gloriously open to interpretation’, begging the question, if it is open to question, why on earth would the Scottish Government choose to interpret it in the manner most detrimental to fishermen?

Seeking clarification on the situation, I spoke with UK officials at the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).  During the course of a constructive discussion they made one thing clear: the situation north of the border is different, and the Scottish Government is free to interpret the clause as they see fit; the UK Government would not interfere in this Scottish decision.

Jamie McGrigor MSP has raised this matter directly with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during Question Time in the Scottish Parliament.  It is right that it should be dealt with at the most senior level, since the answer to the question is both critical to fishermen and to the ongoing debate about the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy.

Nary a month goes by without Mr Lochhead raising his concerns about the approach of the UK Government to fisheries policy.  He talks about being 'excluded from the top table' of EU fishing talks but yet here is an example where the Scottish Government has full flexibility to help fishermen but decides to gold plate the proposal to save money.  Not the fault of Westminster, and certainly not the fault of Brussels.

I promise Scottish fishermen that I will continue to fight for their interests, even when that fight is with the Scottish Government.  Meanwhile should the Scottish Government not choose to revisit its interpretation, I can guarantee that the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament will take up the cudgels and fight for what is right for fishermen.

Fishermen need to be part of this process. That is why in requesting an urgent meeting with Richard Lochhead, I have requested that a delegation of fishermen attend, so they can hear just why the Scottish Government is choosing to make the discard ban even more onerous than it need be.

This article appeared in the Fishing News, printed 9th June