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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19 Update, Fisheries Management, Conversion Practices, Covid-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework, Business Motion, Decision Time, Marie Curie Great Daffodil Appeal 2022


Fisheries Management

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a statement by Mairi Gougeon, on developing a catching policy to deliver sustainable fisheries management in Scotland. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

Scotland’s seas are wonderfully rich and diverse. That is reflected in the abundance of wildlife that we see and the benefits that we all enjoy, be it the delicious, healthy seafood that we eat, the jobs that our seas support or the benefits that coastal communities reap by having such a fantastic natural asset on their doorsteps.

With such diversity and abundance comes great responsibility. The sheer breadth of human activity at sea inevitably brings impacts for the marine environment. Therefore, it is incumbent on us all to understand, manage, mitigate and reduce those impacts to secure our natural resources for generations to come.

A key part of that is ensuring that fishing activity within Scottish waters operates sustainably and responsibly. That commitment to sustainable fisheries management is locked into our overarching fisheries management strategy and will drive many of the new policies and management improvements that are planned over the period to 2030.

However, it is also important to acknowledge the socioeconomic importance of fishing. The past year has not been easy for many in the fishing industry. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused significant continuing economic challenges and many businesses and individuals continue, and will continue, to feel the devastating impacts of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.

I am proud that the Scottish Government has been able to support the fishing industry during this period through the provision of hardship funding and support towards a more resilient and safe future—for example, with targeted funding for the nephrops sector, investment in safety improvements and training, and help for young fishers to enter the sector.

That support must go further still, as we work with the fishing industry and the wider fisheries stakeholder community, which includes other UK fisheries administrations and international partners, to adapt to the changing strategic and operating environment and to deliver a just transition towards a more sustainable future.

The signing of the Bute house agreement, in August last year, means that the spotlight is now, more than ever, on the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, which require urgent action to deliver change on a significant and long-lasting scale.

In our current programme for government, we committed to publishing our approach to the blue economy through an action plan. That recognises the importance of Scotland’s marine space and marine sectors as national assets that are critical to meeting our ambitions for sustainable stewardship of the marine environment. The action plan will be underpinned by a vision and will provide a framing and ambition for Scotland’s marine management policies, strategies and plans, including the fisheries management strategy.

Our vision for Scotland’s blue economy is clear that the actions that are required to steward our marine environment sustainably cannot be delivered in isolation. We have a strong tradition of co-management within Scotland, working with our fisheries stakeholders to respond to topical and difficult issues.

I am confident that, by working in partnership through our co-management groups, we can deliver the best outcomes for Scotland’s marine environment, our seafood sector and coastal communities. The 12 actions that underpin our fisheries management strategy are important building blocks in delivering those outcomes. Our initial actions will be prioritised around the environment, recognising the scale of the change that is needed and helping to tackle some of our most difficult fisheries management challenges.

Today sees significant progress on two key actions. I am delighted to announce that, this afternoon, we are publishing Scotland’s draft future catching policy. As part of the common fisheries policy, the introduction of the landing obligation aimed to tackle the widespread, damaging and unacceptable issue of discarding across the EU. While part of the EU, Scotland played a key role in shaping the discard ban, and we remain fully committed to the principles that underpin the current regulations. However, we and our stakeholders—including fishing and environmental groups—acknowledge that there have been issues with implementation and that the policy is not as effective as it could be. The future catching policy seeks to change that. By proposing a different approach, and by working closely with stakeholders, we will ensure that the right management measures are in place to support pragmatic decision making.

The consultation will test a number of the main components of the future catching policy. First, working in partnership with fishers, scientists and environmental groups, we aim to put in place additional technical and spatial management measures to reduce catches of unwanted fish. That might include increased net selectivity or spawning-stock area closures.

Secondly, we will help the fishing industry to avoid bycatch of sensitive marine species such as seabirds, seals and cetaceans. No fisher wants to catch those species, and we must work together to preserve them in the wider ecosystem.

Thirdly, we will take a pragmatic approach by considering different fleet segments, thereby avoiding the one-size-fits-all approach, which we know does not work in mixed fisheries with varied management issues.

Fourthly, we intend to adjust current rules around discarding to simplify them where required, and ensure that rules can be, and are, complied with.

Finally, we recognise that increasing pressure on available marine space is creating tensions among some parts of the fishing fleet. Therefore, we will seek views on additional management measures that might be required for the creel, gill net and long-line fisheries. Such measures will enable Scotland to deliver on the high-level goals that we have jointly agreed with other UK Administrations in the UK joint fisheries statement and fisheries framework.

That approach is a practical demonstration of this Government’s aim to manage fisheries in the future by working in partnership to agree common goals. Given our unique circumstances, the details of the implementation will be left to our administration to take forward, thereby avoiding an ill-fitting, one-size-fits-all single UK fisheries policy.

The Scottish Government is committed to being a world leader in fisheries management. We take our role as guardian of Scotland’s natural marine environment seriously. The future catching policy will build on our current approach and signal a step change in the way in which unsustainable fishing practices are tackled.

We hope to share learning with our UK and international fisheries partners, demonstrate leadership and support others to deliver the right outcomes for our shared fish stocks, fishing industries and local communities. To be clear, for both the future catching policy and remote electronic monitoring, all rules and regulations will be applied on a level playing field basis to Scottish vessels and to non-Scottish vessels that are fishing in Scottish waters.

Remote electronic monitoring—or REM as it is usually known—adds a crucial layer to the future catching policy and is fundamental to the success of our wider strategy. It will ensure that we are fishing sustainably and delivering accountability and confidence.

This morning, I published a consultation on the implementation of remote electronic monitoring to key parts of the fishing fleet. There is no doubt that Scotland’s fishers produce a high-quality product that many of us enjoy, but we must have confidence that fish stocks are being fished sustainably and responsibly. Many fishers understand that and have taken positive steps to respond. However, given the remote nature of fishing operations, it can often be difficult to demonstrate compliance and deliver the confidence that we need.

Technology can help us, and it is only right that we embrace it. Many fishers have already recognised that, which is substantiated by the rise in uptake of voluntary REM installations on active Scottish scallop dredge boats since Covid restrictions started to ease. It is a significant achievement that more than 80 per cent of our active over-10m scallop dredge fleet now carry REM on board. In this case, that includes cameras.

The consultation on REM confirms this Government’s commitment to introduce mandatory REM on board all scallop dredge and large pelagic vessels that operate in Scottish waters. Subject to parliamentary time and approval, we aim to have the legislation to do that in place by the end of 2022. The consultation seeks views on key aspects of implementation and on appropriate wider deployment to other parts of the fishing fleet.

REM will enhance the baseline commitment that was made in the Bute house agreement for all fishing vessels to be fitted with vessel-tracking equipment by the end of this parliamentary session. REM places an enhanced and independent level of monitoring on board—for example, by using cameras, sensors and GPS—so that we can determine the fishing activity that is taking place. In line with our commitment to proportionality, cameras will not necessarily be needed in every case, because REM can be adapted according to need. The simple but effective technology will demonstrate Scotland’s leading approach to making best use of cutting-edge management tools.

REM will deliver on three main outcomes. First, through the gathering of spatially rich scientific data, it will enhance our knowledge of fisheries and, therefore, allow for better decision making. Secondly, it will deliver confidence and accountability in fishing practices and demonstrate that fishing activity is sustainable and lawful. Thirdly, it will improve the resilience of existing data collection processes by providing uninterrupted data collection, regardless of external factors, including Covid.

I hope that my colleagues from around the chamber will support the policies that I have outlined today, and I look forward to hearing their views as we progress with the development and implementation of our broader fisheries management strategy. I also encourage everyone who has an interest to access and respond to the consultations that have been announced today.

By publishing a future catching policy for Scotland and our proposals to require remote electronic monitoring by key parts of our fishing fleet, we are demonstrating Scotland’s leadership in fisheries management on these islands and internationally.

We are cementing our credentials as responsible and sustainable fisheries managers and signalling to all fishing vessels that operate in Scottish waters that we can and must do better in order to protect and enhance our fantastic marine environment now and for the future. By doing so, we will help to deliver a sustainable future for our fishers, seafood industry and coastal communities.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The cabinet secretary will take questions on the issues that were raised in her statement. I intend to allow 20 minutes for questions. Members who wish to ask a question should press their request-to-speak buttons or type R in the chat function.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of her statement.

Recent events have shown us the critical importance not just of energy security but of food security. In the light of concerns around the Bute house agreement’s socioeconomic impact on Scotland’s fishing communities, is the Scottish Government committed to fishing as an important part of Scotland’s wider food security now and in the future? How will the Scottish National Party-Green coalition restore the trust and confidence of fishermen and coastal communities, following the failures—which the cabinet secretary acknowledged last week, in the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee—in the recent botched process of regulation, flawed consultation, lack of evidence and zero financial compensation for fishing communities on the Clyde?

Mairi Gougeon

In response to Rachael Hamilton’s first point, I note that she is absolutely right about the importance of food security. Fishing and the seafood industry are vital in that regard, because fish and seafood are sustainable sources of protein, which we need to ensure that we can catch sustainably now and into the future. We have set out the policies and consultation today partly to provide assurances on that front.

Last week, I appeared in front of the RAINE Committee to give evidence about co-management and the process in relation to Clyde cod, and said, rightly, that the process was far from ideal. I apologised for that at that committee because the process did not follow the principles of co-management that we seek to achieve and that we have previously achieved in relation to fisheries, through working with our stakeholders. Clyde cod fishing has been a really complex issue to balance. At the committee, I committed to ensuring that we will learn lessons from how that closure has been managed.

The policies that I have set out to Parliament today have been developed through working closely with our stakeholders. We want to hear views on those policies, which is why we are launching the consultation. We are fully committed to using a co-management process in the future.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

It is vital that our future catching policy is future proofed and is led by the best robust scientific evidence, in order to deliver sustainability. The Scottish Government’s recent shambolic handling of the Clyde cod closure shows that there is a long way to go and that there remains a gulf between the cabinet secretary’s rhetoric and the reality of the implementation of policy.

I welcome the two consultations that have been published today. I hope that they will lead to maximum roll-out of remote electronic monitoring and that they will not, in effect, amount to deregulation of discarding.

Will the cabinet secretary give an assurance that the actions that come from the consultations will ultimately be governed by a clear commitment by the Government to fishing quotas staying within robust scientific advice about maximum sustainable yields? Will we also see a significant long-term change in how quotas are allocated to fishing methods that widen socioeconomic benefits and minimise environmental impact?

Mairi Gougeon

Colin Smyth suggests that REM has the potential to lead to deregulation. That is absolutely not where we want to be. The future catching policy that we have sent out for consultation today has been developed with our stakeholders. We very much support the principles behind the landing obligation, which are reduction of waste, improvement of accountability, and safeguarding of sustainability. Our future catching policy—helped and supplemented by REM—will deliver accountability and ensure that we have a policy that works. We are committed to that. We are trying to develop a policy that works for mixed fisheries and for how fisheries are operated in Scottish waters.

The member also asked about quotas. Our general approach to allocation of quotas was set out in our future fisheries management body of work, which was also developed after public engagement. Within that engagement, there was widespread support for continuing the fixed-quota allocation system. The Scottish Government has committed to that system’s continued use for part of our quota.

We have stated that we will act differently in relation to the additional quota that Scotland receives as a result of exit from the EU. The distribution of that additional quota for 2023 onwards will be the subject of a forthcoming consultation.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary mentioned mixed fisheries in her statement. I know that the Firth of Clyde and the Clyde catchment area are really important. Constituents have contacted me about the decision to include creel fishers in the seasonal closure of cod fishing between 14 February and 30 April. I understand that the seasonal closure has been a long-standing measure to protect fish stocks. Will the cabinet secretary ensure that the Scottish Government will work closely with creel fishers to ensure that they are able to plan for any potential future interruption to their business?

Mairi Gougeon

As I said in my previous response, we are absolutely committed to the co-management approach. I understand Emma Harper’s concerns, which were also raised during the committee meeting last week. There were specific reasons why we could no longer permit creeling within the Clyde cod box closure period. Those reasons have been outlined.

Co-management is at the heart of what we are trying to deliver and has been at the heart of our development of the policies that we have put out for consultation today. It will continue to be key in the future.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

I am sure that much thought went into producing the future catching policy to reflect current EU policy as a result of the SNP’s misguided desire to blindly align with the EU’s disastrous common fisheries policy at the expense of Scottish fishers.

Is this not a missed opportunity to genuinely co-design a far better system that is suited to Scottish circumstances instead of tinkering at the edge of the EU’s failed landing obligation?

It is concerning that there are multiple mentions in the statement of spatial restrictions, but not enough about spatial pressures. What does the Scottish Government plan to do to address spatial pressures that arise between fishing and offshore wind? If those are not resolved, there will be even greater pressure between fleet sectors in the future.

Mairi Gougeon

I point out to Finlay Carson that the approach that we have set out today on our future catching policy is world leading. I say again that we completely support the principles that are behind the landing obligation. What we have set out—I do not know whether the member has had a chance to read the consultation document or to go through it in detail—is exactly tailored to our industry in Scotland. It will deliver on the principles and intended outcomes of the landing obligation in a way that works for our industry and recognises the nature of our fisheries.

The member also asked about offshore renewables and fisheries. We are aware that there are a number of conflicts there, and some specific issues. For example, we know that electricity cabling is a key issue for the fishing sector. We are seeking to facilitate early engagement with the fishing sector on those matters, and to guide developers within that.

A sectoral marine plan for the offshore grid is going to be undertaken by Marine Scotland in order to plan for the required network infrastructure, including cable corridors on the sea bed and cable landing points for the offshore grid. Commercial fisheries will be included in that planning process. Marine Scotland is continuing to prioritise and address some of the research gaps that we know exist, including on electromagnetic fields, through the Scottish marine energy research programme. We are also setting up a monitoring group that will consider EMFs.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

What does the Scottish Government anticipate the long-term impact of its fisheries management policies and conservation measures will be on Scotland’s fisheries? Will the introduction of more no-take zones, such as the one in Arran’s Lamlash Bay, form part of the conservation measures?

Mairi Gougeon

The fishing industry is a major beneficiary of the natural capital that our seas provide, so it is vital that we manage that resource carefully now as well as for future generations. Assessments have shown that action is needed for us to achieve good environmental status, which is why we have committed to developing by 2024 the remaining fisheries management measures for marine protected areas and key coastal biodiversity locations outside those sites. In addition, we have committed to designating at least 10 per cent of Scotland’s seas as highly protected marine areas by 2026. That will go beyond what we see in no-take zones, because it will exclude all extractive, destructive and depositional activities—not just fisheries.

Rhoda Grant joins us remotely.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

It is concerning that the consultation appears to suggest that only marketable bycatch will be landed. That will do nothing to prevent the waste of dead fish being dumped back into the sea, and it could also encourage catching of marketable fish for which there is no quota. I urge the cabinet secretary to ensure that all bycatch is landed and that uses such as farmed-fish food are developed for otherwise unmarketable fish in order to cut waste. Will she also take steps to ensure that lucrative species for which there is no quota are not targeted, which would put stocks in danger?

Mairi Gougeon

I say again that a key part of what we are hoping to achieve with the future catching policy is that we ensure that everything that is caught is accounted for. I reassure Rhoda Grant on that point.

In relation to the other points that she raised, I note that the reason why we are having the consultation is to ensure that we get the policy right. That is absolutely what we want to achieve. I encourage the member and her constituents to fill in the consultation and make their views known on those specific issues.

How does what we are doing with the discard ban compare with the EU approach and what is happening elsewhere in the UK?

Mairi Gougeon

The landing obligation or discard ban is part of retained EU law. The current rules around discarding are consistent with those of the EU and the rest of the UK. As I have outlined in some of my previous responses, our commitment to tackling discarding is not going to change, but we know that we can make improvements to the implementation of the landing obligation that will make the rules around discarding more effective.

Through the future catching policy, we hope to improve on the current rules while staying true to the principles of the landing obligation. Key to that is tackling unwanted catch—that is, helping fishers to avoid catching fish and other species that they do not want to catch in the first place. We really want to ensure that we share the learning from our future catching policy with our partners in the EU and the rest of the UK so that we can all improve outcomes for our shared fish stocks.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

It is not only the Scottish Government and environmental groups that want sustainable fisheries management; fishermen whose livelihoods depend on healthy seas and thriving stocks want that, too. In a crowded marine environment, Scottish vessels are being squeezed further through practices such as gillnet fishing, which often add to marine litter, thereby exacerbating biodiversity loss. We have all seen images of seals and seabirds entangled in discarded fishing gear.

Any changes need to be based on fact, and fishermen must have confidence that the scientific evidence is accurate and up to date. How will the Scottish Government ensure just that—that the evidence that it is using is accurate and up to date?

Mairi Gougeon

I have outlined today our commitment to that co-management process and to listening to our stakeholders. That is very much what we want to achieve.

On the member’s first point about the crowded marine environment and some of the conflicts that can be encountered in it, she has corresponded with me about some of those matters. I will touch on one of them. We know that there are issues with gillnets and longlines, which are raised in the consultation document.

It is essential that we work together to arrive at the solutions for allowing legitimate fishing operations to work alongside one another. We pose a series of questions in the consultation document to explore some of the options, and we hope to develop those into firm proposals following the consultation, working closely with our stakeholders.

We acknowledge that there can be issues with finding space in the shared marine environment. We expect all fishers to operate within the law and to do so safely and responsibly.

Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

As the cabinet secretary has said, there is a need to balance environmental, economic and social interests when it comes to fishing. How will the policy do that? In particular, how will it reassure coastal communities that fishing is valued and has a viable future in spite of all the impacts of Brexit?

Mairi Gougeon

First, I offer that assurance. As our fisheries management strategy outlines, fisheries management can be complex, and our decision making will always need to take account of a variety of factors. As we take forward the individual policies and actions that are in the strategy, we seek to use co-management to inform their development. As part of our decision making, we will take account of the various economic, social and environmental factors. It is important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach; it will depend on what we are trying to achieve and on the specific policy that we are looking to deliver.

We know that the impacts of Brexit are being felt across Scotland and that the fishing industry has been hit particularly hard in relation to trade. The Scottish Government is supporting the seafood sector through the marine fund Scotland. Through that fund, around £13 million has been awarded to date across a range of different projects, including support for our young fishers to enter the sea fisheries industry; vessel refurbishment; and help to purchase new and more sustainable fishing gear. That is in addition to the £40 million that we provided under the European maritime and fisheries fund to support an innovative and competitive sector, which also helped to build vital capacity.

Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement.

I welcome the consultations that have been published today and the commitment to delivering a fisheries management strategy that is prioritised around the environment, in recognition of the scale of change that is needed. Since big changes are required, it is more important than ever to take a genuine co-management approach that includes all stakeholder groups when developing policy to deliver fisheries for the future.

I particularly welcome the commitment to rolling out remote electronic monitoring across the Scottish fleet—a measure for which the Scottish Greens have been calling for some time.

The consultation indicates a staged approach to the development of REM in different fleet segments.

Question, please.

Ariane Burgess

We must prioritise the segments with the highest risk of wildlife bycatch and the greatest need to change gear, vessels and practices, as a just transition requires sufficient time and support to make those changes.

Will the cabinet secretary provide an indication of timings for the roll-out of REM across the different fleets, including the demersal fleet, to provide an assurance that the majority of fishers will be given the tools that they need—

I call the cabinet secretary.

—to play an even greater role as stewards of the sea by the end of this parliamentary session?

I call the cabinet secretary.

Mairi Gougeon

We want to ensure that, as we develop and then deliver the policy, we do so in a way that works and that we get it right. Installing REM is a huge undertaking, which is why we have proposed the approach that is set out in the consultation.

In relation to the member’s point on prioritising fleet segments, we have focused initially on the pelagic sector and on the scallop dredge fleet. We know that 80 per cent of vessels of more than 10m in the scallop dredge fleet already have REM installed, so installing REM in rest of the fleet could be an easier undertaking. However, we know that doing that will be more of a challenge for other sectors in the fleet in which that technology has not been used. We have set out our approach on that basis and we ask in the consultation about rolling that out to further fleet segments.

We think that REM is critical in helping us to achieve the objectives of our future catching policy. We have tried to take a proportionate approach and to ensure that, when we deliver the policy, we do so in a way that works—and that we get it right.

I gently remind members that, when I call someone to speak, it is an invitation for them to speak and for the person who is speaking to stop speaking.

Will the cabinet secretary explain how Scotland’s catching policy will help to deliver the objectives in the Fisheries Act 2020 that we are now required to work towards?

Mairi Gougeon

The Fisheries Act 2020 and the joint fisheries statement set the common high-level goals on fisheries management. Our future catching policy provides the details on how we will deliver that by implementing more sustainable fishing gear to reduce bycatch, minimising catches of sensitive species and using monitoring tools to ensure that vessels in Scottish waters fish to the highest possible standards.

To address the specific point about the Fisheries Act 2020, the future catching policy will ensure that all management measures are developed in collaboration with the latest scientific evidence and with the health of fish stocks in mind. That will ensure a sustainable future for Scottish fisheries and honour the sustainability, precautionary and scientific evidence objectives. The commitment to a level playing field for all measures in the future catching policy means that we will also be delivering on the equal access and national benefit objectives. With a suite of technical and spatial measures, the future catching policy will, ultimately, aim to be world leading in relation to how we address issues, with bycatch, ecosystem and climate change objectives, too, in line with the Fisheries Act 2020.

I call Edward Mountain, who joins us remotely.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

In 2015, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity said that 21st century fisheries management needs 21st century tools. In 2016, the Scottish Government promised new legislation to address that point. Unfortunately, nothing has happened since.

We clearly need an inshore fisheries bill, which both Richard Lochhead and Fergus Ewing promised before they were sacked. Will the cabinet secretary deliver where they failed?

Mairi Gougeon

I am sorry, but I missed the first part of the member’s comments. I emphasise to him that, in setting out the policies that are out for consultation today, which we will deliver through legislation later this year, what we are looking to achieve is truly world leading.

In 2020, we set out our future fisheries management strategy, which includes a 12-point action plan, and we will also publish our delivery plan. The consultation on the future catching policy that we have issued today and what we have set out on REM drive that strategy forward, making us world leaders in the field.