Scottish fishermen see benefits of cutting free from EU’s net

Peterhead’s harbour is full of wistful talk about when Brussels did not dictate the catch

 

At 7.30am on a fresh weekday in northeast Scotland, Peterhead fish market is in full swing. Agents representing local fishermen reel off latest prices for haddock, hake and halibut at the top of their voices, like gruff bingo callers. Buyers, wrapped up in heavy coats, cast a critical eye over plastic boxes filled with catch fresh from the vast North Sea.

Peterhead is Europe’s largest fish market. After many difficult years, business is slowly improving. The buyers’ stubbed pens recorded sales of £180 million last year, and plans are afoot for a £49 million (€62 million) expansion of the sprawling port funded, in part, by European Union grants.

Inflexible regulations

Brussels

“Seventy per cent of European stock is caught around the the British Isles and the UK only gets 14 per cent. That is not a good deal and it is driving us out of business,” says Jimmy Buchan over a cup of tea in the Dolphin cafe adjacent to the market. The walls are lined with black-and-white photographs of fishing boats built on the Peterhead quay. Outside, seagulls swoop and dive.

Buchan has been fishing the North Sea for 40 years. When he began, he says, there were so many boats that “you could walk the whole length of the pier without setting foot on land”.

An estimated 450 vessels fished out of Peterhead when the UK joined the EU in 1975, now it is about 100 .

“A lot of people have lost their jobs and will continue to do so unless we put a stop to the situation where people hundreds of miles away who have never even seen a fish are making decisions that affect us,” says Buchan.

While polls suggest the UK is evenly split on the merits of EU membership, fishermen in Peterhead are nearly unanimous in wanting to leave.

Peter Bruce has been fishing since 1977. He regularly trawls off the Norwegian coast, and is envious of Norway’s position outside the EU. The quota system – introduced in part to prevent over-fishing – is too restrictive, he says.

“We are subject to the Common Fisheries Policy, and every year the amount we can catch has decreased. We would hope that if we left we would see our opportunities increase.”

Like many Scottish fishermen, Bruce’s father worked on the boats. But his son decided to work in oil instead. “If we ran our own fishing industry, it would be easier to attract young people,” he says.

This week, a flotilla of trawlers is set to sail up the Thames to central London to campaign for an EU exit. Among them will be Peterhead fisherman John Buchan. “Our industry is being sold down the river,” says Buchan, who wears a “Vote Leave” jumper. The crest features a snarling monkfish with a union flag in its mouth.

Dying industry

“Peterhead is all that is left of the British fishing industry. Everywhere else is dead,” he says. “It’s the same in Ireland. You could go to Killybegs or Castletownbere and fishermen feel the same.” Many fishermen believe that the industry would be better managed closer to home.

“We need to get control back,” says John Buchan. Although the Scottish nationalist government is firmly against Brexit, if the UK were to leave the bulk of fisheries control would revert to Edinburgh.

Few disagree that leaving the EU would see more fish landed in Peterhead but, quietly, at the bustling morning fish market there is some concern about leaving.

“We hate Europe, ” says one buyer who asks to remain anonymous. “But these fish all go to France and Spain. If we piss off our European partners, who are we going to sell to? Our markets are all abroad.”

Peterhead has benefited from European money, too. In 2011, then Scottish first minister Alex Salmond opened a new £33 million pier, which included a £5 million contribution from the European Fisheries Fund.

The EU is considering a £7 million grant application to part-fund a massive redevelopment of Peterhead harbour that will see the port dredged and a larger, purpose-built fish market constructed.

“We need to guarantee fishermen that when you come to Peterhead you can sell your fish on the day it’s landed. We are competing in a global market and our reputation has to be the best,” says John Wallace, chief executive of the Peterhead Port Authority. A decision on the grant is due just after the EU vote, and Wallace believes that, without European funds, “the project cannot proceed”. “If you have the biggest fishing market in Europe, you need to protect it,” he says.

Peterhead has weathered many storms over the years. A ring of imposing granite houses overlooking the port and a name, Blubber Quay, are all that remain of the whaling industry that dominated in the 1800s.

North Sea energy

“Whatever way it goes, in or out, Peterhead will do well,” says Wallace.

Jimmy Buchan is less sanguine. “When I was young boy on my grandfather’s knee, he would never have imagined that his grandson would be fishing langoustines and sending them all over the world. But the question is, what will the next 50 years look like?”

Fishing is a globalised business. Alongside the broad Scots accents on the Peterhead fish market floor are Norwegians, Icelanders and a smattering of eastern European voices.

Dominik Muszynski, originally from Lodz in Poland, has hauled crates of fresh catch across the icy hall for the past two years. Now he is worried about his future.

“The pay here is pretty low but I like this place and I like the work. There are plenty of Polish people here,” he says. “But I’m not sure what could happen if Britain left [the EU]. It could be bad.”

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