The UK inshore fishing industry is in desperate need of new crew. Fleet decommissioning schemes in the 2000s removed a significant number of vessels from the UK inshore fleet and a large number of men from the sector which is still being felt today. The Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation (NIFPO) report that their membership has fallen by 8% this year with an increasing number of owners selling up having failed to obtain the required number of competent crew. The coastlands of Scotland and Northern Ireland have seen an industry crippled in recent times because boats cannot get the crew they need to go to sea with boats tied up due to a lack of seamen.
In an ideal world, there would be enough people in the local communities who want to do the jobs but local men of working age are increasingly turning away from a career in fishing to pursue careers in oil and gas and tourism instead. This is despite various industry-led recruitment drives and attempts to improve perceptions of the work. For example, in Northern Ireland the industry has launched several initiatives designed to promote a career in fishing most recently working with the Northern Ireland government on a recruitment drive for 150 crew for local fishing vessels. It was only able to secure five places.
While the UK has access to EEA fishermen, notably from the eastern European countries, there are insufficient numbers of experienced and skilled seamen as few eastern European fishermen come from a tradition that has a connection to the sea. Many fishermen from outside the EEA, particularly those from the Philippines and Ghana, have the required skills and experience to take forward the work but have no legal entitlement to work in UK territorial waters (defined as 12 miles from shore).
Between 2010 and 2012 the Home Office introduced a short-term visa for a select number of non-EEA fishermen to work in the UK inshore fishing industry. This operated extremely well, satisfying a fundamental labour and skills shortage in the sector which was evident at the time and is very evident now. The Home Office would do well to re-implement this visa system as soon as possible, allowing much needed migration into the industry.
The government are right to harbour concerns about immigration and have imposed targets to ensure that it does not increase too much. But the fishing sector is not a sector that would cause major problems to immigration numbers. The Western Isles Fishermen’s Association and the Orkney Fisheries Association both say that just 60 experienced fishermen from outside the EEA would be required to crew the inshore fleet to the required levels and provide the necessary volumes of landings needed for the onshore factories to operate at a sustainable level. These workers are not looking to come to the UK and settle and the scheme would only operate on a short-term basis. Immigration will be fair, controlled and limited.
The proposal to re-open the scheme has received passionate support from MPs across the parties, the Scottish Government, communities, islands, local government, processors and above all the fishermen. In a Parliamentary debate earlier this week Scottish MP Douglas Ross referred to a conversation with three fishermen in his constituency who visited him in the same week the government announced its initial findings on a future fisheries policy. He assumed that they, like him, were unhappy with the proposals put forward. But despite all the news that week about fishing and the UK’s relationship to the EU, they came to speak to their MP specifically about the need to employ non-EEA workers on inshore fishing vessels.
The creation of a system that allows for the recruitment of non-EEA nationals to work in the UK inshore fishing industry will alleviate the labour and skills shortage crisis. This will mean that high quality seafood can continue to be supplied to UK consumers and export markets and local economies can thrive again with onshore factories working at a profitable level of production.
Chair of the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance, a coalition of charities, consumers and retailers, buyers and processors and the catching sector in the UK Alan McCulla OBE says:
“Brexit presents a sea of opportunity for the UK’s fishing industry and our coastal communities.
“Our ambition is to have a UK fishing fleet that will offer an attractive proposition for UK crew, provide a career path that UK citizens will be eager to pursue and welcomes the skills and expertise from outside the EEA where necessary.
“In the short term it is critical that we secure an arrangement that delivers both suitably qualified crew for our fishing vessels and is open to scrutiny in respect of welfare for all our crew. A scheme for non-EEA nationals will achieve this.”
The industry cannot cope with the current restrictions on non-EEA crew any longer and government has the opportunity to address this. It would be ironic and tragic to take back control of UK waters post Brexit only to leave them unfished.