We're Just the Wee Guys: a Chat with a Scottish Fisherman

Reprinted from Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake

In the Scottish village of Tarbert on the west coast at the mouth of the Hebrides, I met fisherman Kenny MacNab who was sipping a Guinness at a local pub, his dog Kiera at his feet. Out of 45 years of fishing, he's spent much of the past decade fighting for fishermen's rights as a member of the Clyde Fishermen's Association, one of several that make up the Scottish Fisheries Federation.

"We represent fishermen of the Firth of Clyde," MacNab explained. "Ours is the oldest association, which began in the 1930s when herring was the main fishery."

Today mackerel, cod, herring, and other pelagics known collectively as "whitefish" are quota fisheries targeted by large fleets in the 12-200 mile European Union EEZ. MacNab, fishing Frigate Bird, a 17meter-long twin-rigged trawler, harvests inshore fisheries within the 12-mile Scottish territory.

"I fish mainly lobster, scallops, crabs, and langostinos for Spanish and French markets," he said, explaining that waters have warmed and shellfish have become more abundant in recent years.

Although Scottish fishermen have much in common with U.S. fishermen, impacted by well-funded but misinformed NGOs, lacking a sufficient voice in management, and experiencing profound changes in their communities, they face a complicated political landscape very much in flux since the United Kingdom voted for Brexit, divorcing England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland from the European Union.

"I voted for Brexit, but was shocked when it passed," MacNab reflected. "I thought, now we have a chance for properly managed fisheries." EU fisheries are managed according to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which sets quotas and regulations for all member countries.

"The CFP has been a disaster for us," said Kenny MacNab. "All the power comes down from Brussels and we have no input. I now have hope for the first time in a long time that we can regain control, sit at the table with bureaucrats and scientists, and turn things around."

A recent CFP policy that has proven controversial among fishermen is known as the Landing Obligation. The Landing Obligation, half way into a 3-year phase-in, requires that all fish in key quota species be landed rather than discarded, undersized fish sold as scrap to fishmeal companies or counted and then buried in a landfill.

"Madness," MacNab declared. "This will tie boats up because it costs you. If you carry in 150 boxes of discards, that's 150 boxes of marketable product that's displaced." He added, "The Landing Obligation is probably the primary reason fishermen supported Brexit."

Although MacNab is optimistic about the future, he expresses a very cautious optimism. "I don't trust any politician, although some are good people. They will tell you anything for a vote, and fishermen have been used as political pawns."

Younger fishermen of Tarbert have been making money and doing well, which Kenny MacNab is glad to see. He'd like to see the community spirit associated with fishing make a come-back as well.

"A very social thing, fishing is," he emphasized. "We work all week, we're all in it together, everyone part of the community - it's not too late to bring that back." A great challenge is countering the negative image being spread on social media about fishing.

"They make us out to be pirates," said MacNab. But we're just the wee guys trying to keep our communities going and alive."