We need greater marine and fisheries protection capacity regardless of which Brexit we are landed with

This article first appeared in the Shetland Times

With UK’s proposed EU exit now just ten months away it seems that there are more questions than answers about what the future will hold.

One thing that seems clear is whatever the outcome, the Scottish Government will need to increase its capacity of marine and fisheries protection vessels.

Currently Marine Scotland, the Scottish Government agency charged with monitoring our seas, has a fleet of just three Compliance Vessels. This fleet has wide ranging responsibilities including monitoring marine protected areas and ensuring compliance with fishing regulation in the Scottish zone.

In contrast the Welsh Government has recently commissioned five new vessels, built in Wales, to patrol its significantly smaller seas. The Scottish Government has a real opportunity to take the bull by the horns and invest in new vessels to ensure its fleet has the appropriate capacity.

My recent discussions with Scottish Government Ministers lead me to believe that, rather than seizing the initiative, they are content to sit on their hands. The Cabinet Secretary for Environment advised me in writing that ‘I am keeping the situation under constant review.’ This sentiment was echoed by the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, who I questioned on this matter at a parliamentary committee last week, before he went on to praise the expertise of Marine Scotland staff.

I have no doubt that the Marine Scotland staff are experts in fisheries and marine protection, but I have serious concerns about the current resource allocation and whether it allows them to do everything possible to protect our seas.

Recent incidents in Marine Protected Areas, such as at Loch Carron in Ross-shire have demonstrated that a lack of resource is making it difficult for Marine Scotland to adequately protect Scotland’s vast marine environment, and with more protected areas due to be added I find it difficult to see how this situation will remedy itself.

It is likely, given the pigs ear the UK Government are making of the Brexit process, that we could find ourselves, out of the EU and completely isolated on 1st April next year. I am hopeful that we won’t end up in that position, but even if a transition arrangement is agreed, it is likely that there will be calls for increased monitoring of Scottish waters.

With that in mind I would urge the Scottish Government to take the initiative, put marine and fisheries protection at the forefront of its thoughts, and create ship building jobs in Scotland by commissioning the additional vessels that we will need in the future, regardless of which variant of Brexit we are landed with.