Notebook by BILL HEANEY

Helensburgh used to be a vibrant fishing port, and it could be again if the Scottish Government clamped down on filthy contaminated water and untreated sewage being dumped in the Firth of Clyde.

Suddenly imposed visa rules have led to fishermen in the Firth and along the West coast from Girvan to Oban and beyond witnessing their ability to fish severely hampered with some of them unable to go to sea at all.

This important matter was raised in the Commons on Wednesday by LibDem MP, former Dumbarton Procurator Fiscal Depute Alistair Carmichael, who challenged  Prime Minister Rishi Sunak  over the government’s disruption of fishing operations across the country due to these sudden visa rule changes.

“Fishermen across the country have seen their ability to fish severely hampered in recent days due to the policy shift, with some unable to go to sea at all,” he said.

Mr Carmichael added: ““Last week the Home Office announced that they would not be setting up a bespoke visa scheme for the fishing industry, of the sort that is already available for people working in fish farms and offshore wind farms.

“They also told skippers that crew previously employed under the temporary scheme had to stop working immediately.

“As a consequence of that announcement, in fishing ports around the coast today, many fishing boats are tied up, unable to go to sea.

“It’s the only time that the Home Secretary has been successful at her stated ambition of ‘stopping the boats’.

“The Prime Minister and his party promised our fishermen a sea of opportunity. What is the point of a sea of opportunity if you can’t get crew to fish in it?”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak protested: “We are proud champions of the UK’s fishing industry. We are always looking to engage with them to make sure that they get the support that they need and the opportunities that are there for them because of Brexit.”

Mr Carmichael said later: ““The Prime Minister is clearly ignorant of the issues facing fishermen as a result of Suella Braverman’s chaotic policy making but that is no excuse. Fishermen are tied up at the quays tangled in Home Office red tape.

“The numbers of workers and vessels affected may be small but they represent a vital part of our isles economy – and the knock-on effects to the processing and food production sectors will be far-reaching.

“This is an urgent issue and the complacent response from the government is not good enough. We need proper answers and a change of course now.”

A number of SNP politicians who have rural and island constituencies have spoken out against these Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAS) with front-bencher Brendan O’Hara the most high-profile to do so after Kate Forbes.

Helensburgh and Argyll
SNP MP Brendan O’Hara

These proposals have been widely rejected by islanders, with one local band even writing a song to protest against them, comparing them to the Highland Clearances.

A growing number of SNP politicians have also spoken out against them, including Kate Forbes and Angus MacNeil. Brendan O’Hara, who is the chief whip for the Westminster group, has written to Humza Yousaf to urge him to ditch the proposals.

He said that the plans would result in the loss of the region’s remaining fishing fleet which would severely damage the local economy. The likes of fish processors, boatyards, delivery drivers, administrators and marine engineers would be potentially out of a job.

He wrote: “The loss of these jobs, and the perceived lack of any future economic opportunities for our young people, is guaranteed to drive families out of Argyll and Bute, and discourage others from coming, further accelerating what we know is an already critical depopulation crisis.

“Losing families will lead to the loss of schools and other vital services, which painful experience tells us that once they are gone, they are very, very difficult to bring back.”

Mr O’Hara said that he believed the approach being adopted by the SNP would inevitably lead to Argyll and Bute becoming “a retirement home for the wealthy and elderly who wish to see out their remaining years in their rural idyll.”

Mairi McAllan SNP MP campaigning with former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

He also added that fishing communities felt “abandoned and ignored” by the government but that they were willing to work with officials to create a “long term sustainable solution.”

The HPMAs have become a controversial topic, with a number of SNP politicians who represent island communities publicly speaking out against them.

Kate Forbes, who is MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, promised to axe the consultation and re-draw plans if she became First Minister, while Mr MacNeil is MP for the Western Isles.

The government consultation ended on Monday, and if the proposals go ahead, Scotland would become the first country in the world to give a tenth of its coastal waters this strictly protected status.

One former MSP, Angus MacDonald resigned his SNP membership after 35 years with the HPMAs being the “final straw.”

A number of MPs from rural constituencies are concerned that the plans would put them at risk of losing their seat, with Humza Yousaf stressing that the HPMAs were a “red line” for the Scottish Greens.

Following the closure of the consultation, Net Zero and Just Transition Secretary Mairi McAllan said: “I recognise there is considerable strength of feeling on this issue – from those who support it and those who have concerns.

“It has always been our intention to develop these ambitious proposals in close collaboration with those impacted by them – in particular, people living and working in our island and coastal communities.

“That’s why we have chosen to consult right at the beginning of the process and why I have committed to now consider the responses to our initial consultation very carefully as we develop next steps.

“I want to give my assurance that I am listening and absolutely recognise the value that Scotland’s fishing and aquaculture sectors play in contributing to our economic prosperity. I will visit coastal and island communities in the coming months to hear directly from those affected.”

Islands MSP, Liam McArthur said: “Coastal and island communities rely on the marine environment. It goes without saying that protecting stocks and the biodiversity of our waters is of paramount importance. However, the approach being taken by the Scottish Government to HPMAs appears overly-rigid and likely to do real damage to those communities.

Fishing could be finished for me and my young son

Fishing Callum Elliott, fiancé Lisa MacInnes and son Angus/Photo of guest
Callum and his wife Lisa hope Angus could one day become a fisherman

Callum Elliott is a fisherman on the west coast of Scotland but he’s worried about the future for himself and his 18-month-old son Angus.

His village of Tarbert in Argyll is built around the harbour and its small boats like Callum’s trawler Sea Spray.

But in recent years the town has lost its chandlery, fish sales office and 60% of the fleet.

Local fishing grounds are being squeezed by a rise in the number of salmon farms, an expanding offshore wind sector and now by plans to protect the seabed by closing another 10% of the waters.

This fishing community has lived with the restriction of marine protected areas (MPAs) since 2016 but the Scottish government now proposes “highly protected” marine areas (HPMAs) where all commercial activity would be banned.

Callum says: “If we were left to do what we’d like to do under the rules and regulations that are currently in place there could be a great future but we need the government to work with us.  If they carry on down the path they are, it’s finished for me and it’s finished for Angus.”

The campaign group Open Seas wants better management plans which show clearly where the seas are protected and where fishing is allowed.

sea spray
Callum operates the trawler Sea Spray

Callum, 37, comes from a farming background but felt the calling of the sea from a young age.

Ten years ago this week he took out a six-figure bank loan to buy his small trawler but feels there’s now too little support for traditional fishing communities.

Cabling from wind turbines, seaweed farming and the presence of military bases have all heaped pressure on the same marine space meaning it’s becoming squeezed.

Many fishermen feel they are being left the dregs once the seas have been divided up by other industries.

Callum says: “It used to be a job that, in my eyes, was respected but now you’re almost ashamed to say that you’re a fisherman.”

Fish farms and submarines are a menace to West Coast fishermen.

Fishing boats in harbours up and down the West Coast and, top picture, is of fishermen going about their daily work on Helensburgh Pier. Herring fishermen used to come up the River Clyde as far as Dumbarton Quay.


Carmichael condemns Home Office response on fishing issues

Alistair Carmichael, has condemned the Home Office’s response to his Urgent Question on fishing worker visas as “not as an answer but an insult”.

The Orkney and Shetland MP, was outlining a range of concerns for fishermen across the country as a result of sudden Home Office changes to visa rules, all of which were ignored by the responding minister Sarah Dines MP.

Mr Carmichael said:  “Fishermen will hear the response today from the minister not as an answer but as an insult. It would be easy to say that the fishermen I have spoken to are simply angry – but they were not. They just sounded utterly desolate and desperate.

“This decision is economically illiterate, politically inept and morally indefensible. The Conservatives may not care for fishermen but you would think they would care about the knock-on effects to processing, to hospitality – and of course to food price inflation. With inflation still running rampant they cannot afford so many own goals.

“These are real people in island and coastal communities being affected. One skipper bought a boat and quota for £1.4 million, still owes about £680,000 and now faces ruin if he cannot go to sea. Another skipper who owns two Orkney crab boats does not have the crew to shift his creels legally now – either to bring them onshore or to move them beyond the 12-mile limit.

“These are people who have worked hard, saved, borrowed, invested to grow a business to provide for them and their families and which they can then, in turn, hand on to the next generation to maintain the communities that they call to home and to provide us all with food on our plates.

“They have been promised the earth by the Conservatives and now when they need this tiny piece of help the Home Office is nowhere to be seen. If it is allowed to stand then the Tories need not go looking for votes in fishing communities again for another generation.”

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