Rural Cabinet Secretary Mairi Gougeon avoided supporting coalition colleague Ariane Burgess’ claim that Shetland fishing is in decline
The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, Mairi Gougeon sidestepped a question from Conservative MSP, Finlay Carson on comments made by coalition partner, Green MSP Ariane Burgess, where she claimed that fish stocks around Shetland “are in rapid decline”.
Ms Burgess made the spurious claim in an article in the Shetland News on Monday 13 February last, where she said:
“The life in our seas and on our coasts has either gone or is in rapid decline. Simply put in the face of rising sea temperatures due to climate change and destructive methods of inshore fishing that damages the seabed and destroy habitats, nature doesn’t have the capacity to recover.”
The Green Party MSP for the Highland and Islands went on to make other claims that the industry was collapsing as young people turned away from fishing as they “have other interests”, that puts the future of the industry in doubt.
Her statements caused outrage in the Islands with the local councillor Duncan Anderson, the fishing group UK Fishing Forward and the Shetland Fishermen’s Association criticising the Edinburgh born politician as “woefully uninformed”.
Burgess tried to redress her article in a the Letter Section of the newspaper entitled ‘A different approach is needed’ – Highlands and Islands Green MSP Ariane Burgess responds to her critics where she wrote, “I trust this won’t get lost in the misunderstanding that what I was writing about was the region, rather than Shetland” and that she was trying to draw people into the conversation on Highly Protected Marine Areas.
She said that Scotland was very far from delivering on its Good Environmental Status. She said: “We are required to have only 15 per cent of the seabed in “poor condition”. But by the Scottish Government’s own assessment, 80 per cent of Shetland’s seafloor is in ‘poor condition’ due to towed, bottom-contacting fishing. That is 65 per cent points higher than the good environmental status threshold set by the Marine Strategy Regulations.
“Without HPMAs it will be exceedingly difficult to reach these commitments. This is because, unfortunately, Scotland’s fisheries management policies up to this point have not prioritised longevity of fish stocks and ecosystem health – so a different approach is needed.
“At some point we have to see the biggest picture – that we are facing climate change and rapid species extinction, which, if we don’t do something about will mean there is not much left for future generations in Shetland, Scotland or anywhere on the planet.”
The Shetland Fishermen’s Association again took exception with this letter and told the MSP in a responding letter:
“As Ms Burgess’ own constituents, fishing crews in Shetland are utterly vexed at the lack of understanding that she has displayed here, and her unwillingness to re-consider. Let us make the point again: that no one – even, or especially, a Scottish Green Party MSP – has more interest in preserving fish stocks around Shetland than the family-owned fishing fleet that relies on them for a sustainable future.
“Far from the apology and correction that had been asked for – not only by Shetland’s fishing crews, but by much of the wider community – Ms Burgess has chosen to double down on her rhetoric. The widespread anger and disappointment caused by her ill-advised Shetland Times column seems, astonishingly, to have gone completely over her head. Ms Burgess must be a savvy political operator indeed, as we simply cannot see how this bold vote winning strategy could possibly reap rewards for herself, or any local green candidates, in a fishing community like Shetland.
“If you come after Shetland’s fishing heritage, you better not miss. Ms Burgess missed – big time – but fails to recognise this.”
During question time in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday 22 February Conservative MSP for Galloway and West Dumfries, Finlay Carson asked Minister Gougeon if she shared the views of her government colleague:
“Does the cabinet secretary agree with her Green coalition partner Ariane Burgess that fish stocks around Shetland are “in rapid decline” as a result of “destructive methods of inshore fishing”, or does the cabinet secretary instead agree with the Shetland Fishermen’s Association’s well-evidenced response that her comments are ignorant of the fact that “Shetland’s inshore waters still teem with the same fish and shellfish stocks that have helped sustain our community for generations”, as a result of sustainable fishing practice?”
To which the Cabinet Secretary replied:
“Sustainable fishing practices are exactly what we want to see. A key part of my role is going out and about visiting our islands and speaking to fishers and farmers. I know that people greatly care about the environment in which they operate. In my initial response to Gillian Mackay, I outlined the work that we are taking forward, why it is so important and the objectives that were set out in the joint fisheries statement. We are legally obliged to adhere to those, which is why the measures that we are proposing are so important.
“In all the work that we are taking forward, it is critical that we engage with our fishers and other stakeholders. It is in all our best interests to ensure that we have a healthy marine environment with healthy fish stocks so that, in future, we have fishers and a fishing industry to provide that valuable food source for us.