Speech to the Shellfish Association of Great Britain

Ian's Speech to the Shellfish Association of Great Britain Conference - 24 May 2016


Thank you all very much indeed for the kind invitation to speak today. It is quite something to think that people have talking fish here for just shy of 600 years.

I would especially like to thank David Jarrad, your Director who invited me here today and the chairman of this session, your Chairman, Dr Colin Bannister.

My name is Ian Duncan I say that because, I think it is fair to say that as a member of the European Parliament, I am widely unknown across my constituency of Scotland, and I welcome this opportunity to extend my anonymity still further.

I was elected to the Parliament in 2014, and I sit on two of the committees that probably have most greatest impact upon you - at least until the 23 of June anyway - the Fisheries Committee and the Environment Committee, of which more later.

When I was a boy…

Denis Healey declared that it is important for politicians to have a hinterland. I agree. One of my formative experiences was working for Scottish fishermen, as Secretary of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. I am probably one of the few elected politicians that know when a Scottish fishermen is talking about prawns, he is not talking about a prawn. Working with the Federation was instructive in other ways, since it brought in to sharp relief the challenges of working within what must be one of the most complex bureaucratic regimes ever devised by the mind of man.

Before I get on to what is happening in Brussels, I should declare that my interest in shellfish actually predates my work with the SFF.  Shellfish and I go way back. As an undergraduate at St Andrews, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Common Cockle:

The environmental controls of growth and ornamentation and a study of the trace element geochemistry of the shell of the Common cockle Cerastoderma edule from the Tay & Eden Estuaries.

I was interested in working out the controls on the uptake of heavy metals not in the flesh of the cockle but in its shell. The ultimate aim was to create a model that would allow me to determine the sea water chemistry in the historical and recent geological past. Cockle shells are commonly found in the recent record.

The inhabitants of Skara Brae in the Orkney islands were not averse to an occasional cockle, oyster, crab or mussel, augmented by the occasional Great Auk for variety. Interestingly the seas around Orkney today are not so different in terms of heavy metal content from the waters that lapped the palaeolithic shores.


Shellfish contribute nearly half of the total value of seafood landed into the UK. Cultivated shellfish - nearly 30,000 tonnes of them - contribute an additional £38 million. Despite this, the industry is often overlooked in discussions and decisions that can have huge impacts.

When I worked in fisheries, it was the Nephrops or Norwegian lobster that was the single most important species to the fleet. You could tell it was a recent arrival on the scene since it is the only fish species commonly referred to by its Latin name - kidney eye, in translation.

I was also with the Federation during the height of the Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP) outbreak back in 1999 that so bedevilled the scallop industry. I was  the first scientist employed by the SFF and so was tasked with developing a response. Gonads, as is so often he case, were the problem

The shellfish industry continues to go from strength to strength, with a global market reach. If you are eating sushi in Japan, there is a strong chance that your shellfish hailed from the waters off our shores.

Beware celebrity chefs bearing gifts

I note that my address today is titled, ‘A view from Brussels.’ It could so easily have been entitled, ‘the good, the bad and the ugly.’  Let me illustrate the situation using a specific case study. Let me talk a little about Hugh Fernely-Whittingstall. You can decide which of the three he qualifies under.

His campaign, ‘Fish Fight,’ was probably one of the most successful campaigns in the history of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Moved by the frustrations of fishermen who were regularly called upon to throw perfectly good fish over the side - so called ‘discards’ - he set out to change the way the European Union managed fisheries.

The problem was epitomised by the discarding of cod. Despite the fact that the cod fish was in trouble, fishermen were still discarding up to 2.1 million tonnes a year, indeed they were compelled to do so by EU law. I could spend some time talking about mixed fisheries, choke species, and the challenge of depressed quotas, but suffice it to say, it was enough to mobilise a nation.

From a standing start, 870,000 individuals joined the charge and a titanic lobbying effort followed. In the space of only 3 years, FW had secured the passage of Regulation (EU) 2015/812 of the European Parliament and of the Council - the Landing Obligation. An extraordinary feat, as those in this room who have tried to change EU law know all too well.

When I became a member of the Fisheries Committee in 2014 the big challenge was making the discard ban work. I was appointed one of the negotiators on the ‘Landings Obligation,’ Regulation (EU) 2015/812 , to give it its Sunday designation, the law that would make the discard ban a reality. That’s when the fun really began.

And then the circus moved on

There are several reasons to discard fish - size, quality, vessel safety - but the ban was primarily targeted at the discard of marketable fish, fish that could be landed if quota was available.

It quickly became apparent - in truth it had always been apparent - that discards were a serious problem in mixed fisheries, and the problem was acute where quotas were out of kilter with the quantity of fish on the ground.

In truth the discard ban didn’t really, couldn’t really, address this issue since it didn’t actually address the quota issue. What it did do was substitute discard at sea for discard ashore. The big difference - despite my best efforts during the negotiation of the law - was that the costs of the shore-side discard would be born by fishermen.

In the by-going, the cod stock, which will not be subject to the discard ban until January 2017, is going from strength to strength, primarily as a result of the actions of fishermen - real time closures, better targeting of opportunities, sharing of stock distribution data - together with a grudging rise in quota.

There is every likelihood that the discard ban will actually undo this good work.

Highly illogical

In logic there is a device much parodied that seems relevant to the discussion, the syllogism.

All Scots are British

Jock is a Scot

Therefore Jock is British

(I appreciate that example may not be universally accepted north of the border)

In the case of discards, the syllogism seems to have been:

Something must be done.

This is something

Therefore it must be done.

Sadly it missed the point. A simplistic solution in a complex system. And then the circus moved on, celebrity chefs and all, leaving the Parliament to try and make the plan work.

The missing ingredient, as is so always the case, fishermen. I cannot stress enough how important it is to involve those affected by legislation in the development of legislation. I believe that it is the single biggest failing of the CFP (and there are many).

Where next?

Let me conclude with a few observations about fisheries management in the EU.

The CFP was constructed in a different era. Indeed it was constructed as a means of allocation not conservation. It has been a serious wrench to bring about even modest reforms. Until the issue of exclusive competence is addressed 'head-on'; until the current EU arrangements for fisheries management are adapted to allow a greater role of the UK Government and devolved administrations in determining fisheries management, it is debatable whether the CFP can ever be made fit for purpose.

In 2002, Regional Advisory Councils (RACs) were created as part of the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. This was something I fought for in my role as Secretary of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. They were established to give stakeholders - fishermen, vessel owners, processors etc., a means to feed recommendations into policy development.

Much vaunted by the Commission, the reality is quite different. Take the recent example of the EU ban on drift nets. A law principally aimed at addressing by-catch issues in the Mediterranean, would have eliminated Marine Stewardship Council accredited fisheries in the UK. I pointed this out more than once to Commissioner Vella but he was indifferent. I lodged only one amendment - the inclusion of the word ‘Mediterranean’ in the title. It took almost 18 months for the Commission to withdraw the proposal.

RACs must evolve beyond offering advice to delivering management.

Celebrity chefs, backed by social media, have more influence than fishermen.

The public want fish from sustainable sources. They want to know that their diet is not causing harm to the environment. More and more people are aware of the MSC blue lable- and it is great to see that already, Exmouth Mussels, Burry Inlet Cockles, Dee Estuary Cockles, North Menai Strait Mussels, Shetland and Scotland Rope Grown Mussels and Shetland inshore Brown Crab, Velvet Crab and Scallop. This is the thin end of the wedge I know and there will be many more coming down the pipeline in the near future.

Fishermen need to be at the heart of the CFP.