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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 9. When Fishermen Protest


Monday 31st March, 1975, - for several hours before dawn on that calm morning, practically the whole Scottish fishing fleet, and many English vessels, left port, - not for the fishing grounds, but on a pre-arranged mission to halt all shipping from entering or leaving British ports. The unprecedented action was the culmination of government’s refusal to listen to mounting protests by the fishers against measures being taken by the UK government and the EEC Fisheries authorities who were imposing their ‘common fisheries policy’ on the British fleet. Despite repeated denials by Edward Heath and other UK politicians, including the administration of Harold Wilson which had recently replaced the Conservatives, it was becoming increasingly evident that the CFP was going to cripple the fisheries sector. Fish imports were flooding the UK market and depressing prices for the national fleet. Fuel prices were escalating, and the dock workers union was threatening to impose its labour on all fishing ports, instead of just the large deep sea trawler ports of Hull, Grimsby, Aberdeen, and Lowestoft.

Under the terms of the CFP, European boats could now fish up to six miles from the British coast, and, in some cases, even closer. There was also a threat to close the huge North Sea herring fishery. All these trends confirmed the fishers fears that their industry and livelihoods were being taken from them by a range of iniquitous regulations. What started as a trickle of paperwork the government had asked the fishers to complete out of courtesy, and not from compulsion, was becoming a horrendous bureaucratic imposition with each skipper required to complete log books, trip reports, and catches, in considerable detail. Despite the gentle way the paperwork was deceptively introduced, the iron fist inside soon displayed itself with threats of huge fines, and even imprisonment for any fisherman who refused to comply.

French fishermen had a history of stronger protest when they felt their government had let them down. A few weeks earlier, they had organised a blockade of channel ports, and had dumped loads of fish on highways and near government buildings. They were also protesting against fish imports, and also against the rising cost of fuel. The Scots decided to take a leaf out of the French book, and express their protest through a blockade. Twelve days before the Scottish fleet blockade, English fishermen from Grimsby had their boats block the Humber. (Hull ships did not participate since they were mostly distant water trawlers who had been tricked into supporting acceptance of the CFP on the false promise of access to Norwegian waters. In contrast Grimsby had a large fleet of seiners and near-water trawlers, much like the Scottish fleet).

For most of February and March 1975, Scots fishers had a series of fruitless meetings with government ministers and officials. The government tactic was to wear them down and get them back to sea, knowing that skippers could not afford to spend time in negotiations while their boats were tied up and the crews were losing money. The window of opportunity for a massive protest was closing, and decisions had to be made speedily. Now the action of the Humberside fleet spurred them on. It had involved 65 boats and 260 men. Then on 22 March the Tyne fishermen from North shields and adjacent ports, joined the Humberside protest. Leading the Grimsby fishers were my friend Murdo McInnes of the Grimsby Seiners Association, and Skipper Dennis McKenny and John Abbott of the Humber Share Fishermens Organisation. Like many law-abiding fishers, Murdo McInnes counselled caution and more negotiation, but eventually supported the protest. He used to joke that his nick-name was ‘Murder McInnes’ !

On Thursday 25 March over one thousand fishermen turned up for a meeting in Peterhead. A meeting had been scheduled at the Fishermen’s Mission but had to be reconvened at the Peterhead Academy. Men arrived from Mallaig, on the west coast, Wick, in the far north, Lossiemouth, Buckie, Macduff, Fraserburgh, Aberdeen, Arbroath, and Anstruther. Feelings were running high and tensions were rising as the government continued to stonewall, and to offer vague, worthless promises. The men were shouting for an immediate blockade. Among their demands were a renegotiation of EEC treaties and policy, secure 50 mile or 200 mile fishery limits, an end to frozen fish imports, and a guarantee that dock labour would not be given control over fishing port landings.

An action committee was formed along with port committees. They included relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances of mine, my cousin John Thomson, Skippers Willie Hay, Jim Slater, David Smith, Willie Milne, John Mitchell, John C Buchan, Iain Smith, Jackie Reid, Andrew Strachan, and a shore industry leader, Jim Lovie. The core group met at the Gloucester Hotel in Aberdeen on the Sunday, while local group controllers coordinated arrangements in each port. The Aberdeen meeting continued until 2.00 am when it was agreed they get some sleep and resume at 4.00 am. But my cousin John could not sleep and instead had a walk down to the Aberdeen harbour and docks where all was quiet.

But in the stillness of that morning, boats had slipped out of their harbours all around the coast, and were heading towards the allocated targets for the blockade, as directed by their local fleet commanders. A total of 900 fishing vessels with 5,000 men, arrived at the 18 targeted ports and skilfully manoeuvred into position, preventing other ships from entering or leaving the ports. The main targets in Scotland had been the Cromarty Firth, Grangemouth and Newhaven in the Firth of Forth, Aberdeen, Lerwick, Greenock Ayr and Ardrossan in the Firth of Clyde, Stornoway, Mallaig, Kyle of Lochalsh, and Peterhead. By breakfast time that morning, the whole nation, and the world, heard about the peaceful blockade. There were a number of attempts by shipping companies to break the blockade, but the fishers stood firm except in a few cases which posed no threat to their protest.

In Aberdeen police swarmed all over the docks and demanded of crewmen information on who had ordered them to engage in the protest. John Thomson and Willie Hay overheard them and John stepped in to take full personal responsibility. The police attempted to serve writs on the two skippers from the Action Committee, but a senior police officer appeared and prevented that happening, probably on orders from Westminster or the Scottish Office. Despite official government opposition, the fishers received wide public support. An American Fishermen’s Association sent a telegram to express solidarity and say that 45 of their east coast boats had tied up in sympathy.

Although hostile and distant at first, the (Labour) government eventually had to negotiate with the fishermen. Their initial tactic was to drive a wedge between the different fishermen associations, insisting on meeting the blockade leaders in the Trawlers Federation offices. Edward Heath had used the distant water trawlers / national waters fleet divide to get some support for acceptance of the EEC common fisheries policy and the release of national fishing grounds to Europe, by promising the trawler companies access to Icelandic and Norwegian waters. That tactic worked then (though both Iceland and Norway remained outside of the EEC thus depriving the distant water fleet of their anticipated access to those waters). Howver, in 1975 the trawler firms said that although they were not part of the blockade, they sympathised with it, and might give it their active support.

The man sent to meet with the blockade leaders was Hugh Brown, a Scottish Office Fisheries Minister. Brown was an interesting if fairly logical choice. He had led negotiations with the Iceland government over the exclusion of UK trawler fleets from Icelandic waters. He also had an impeccable socialist pedigree having been brought up in Glasgow and supported the many workers strikes and demonstrations there, together with his socialist father. But Brown was a skilled operator and while he expressed sympathy and understanding, he was cautious about what the government could or would do in the situation. However, he did give the blockade leaders the impression that most of their demands would be met. Here are a summary of his comments from the press reports of the time :

“Hugh Brown agreed that the fishing industry had been neglected by the government. It had not been mentioned in the Labour manifesto, nor had it been a priority in the renegotiations of Common Market terms. He declared that this had all now been changed. The Cabinet was concerned with the fishing industry and wishes to solve the problem. He was sure the Foreign Office would come up with a policy to protect (British) fishing interests. However, he would not reveal the Government’s negotiating position on the common fisheries policy, nor would he give assurances on questions he regarded as hypothetical.” (Blockade 75, Gavin Cargill)

The fishermen discussed the government response at length, and eventually agreed to end the blockade. Willie Hay issued the instruction to the blockading fleets using the agreed code word “Snowflake”. At 6.00 am next day the fleet dispersed with similar naval precision to the enactment of the blockade. Willie Hay called a press conference to announce the decision, and said that in the fishermen’s view, “75 % of their demands had been met’ and ‘There was a genuine belief that the Government meant business’.”

In the event, only two minor demands were met, one relating to the imposition of dock labour on smaller non-union ports, and one on inclusion of shellfish boats in a small fleet subsidy scheme. There was no action on fishing limits or renegotiation of the common fisheries policy. This was fairly typical strategy of governments to fishers’ protests. They know that each protest is enormously costly to the men in terms of time and money, and they reason rightly that once the fishers return to sea, the pressure will abate. Perhaps one longer term result that the government under-estimated, was that many of the fishing communities began to support alternative political parties including the SNP and UKIP which both advocated withdrawal from the EEC / EU common fisheries policy.

A one-man protest

My cousin John was to make his own personal protest against the CFP rules, a few years later. What had begun with a polite request to skippers to assist government on a voluntary basis with information of their weekly fishing trip activities, was rapidly developing into a bureaucratic nightmare. Increasing numbers of forms and data demands were added to the log books to get skippers to spell out where and when they caught each species of fish in their total catch. It is a well-known phenomenon that given the power to demand data, there is no limit to the items that a zealous bureaucrat will include in the list of questions. I have observed the same tendency in sociologists. Given a remit to study fishing communities, these researchers can come up with queries of a most intrusive and personal nature. I can think of some who wanted to know how often fishermen slept with their wives, how many metal spoons or forks they possessed, and even – what was the name of their mother-in-law ! When I challenged the learned doctor of sociology on the relevance of that question, his response was, “Well, he says he is married, but is he being truthful ? If I ask him the name of his wife’s mother then I know for sure he is married !”

Well, cousin John drew the line at the demand for details of the location of every one of his fishing grounds. This to all fishers is a recognised trade secret. He spends a lifetime in all weathers finding where fish school at different times and seasons, and where he can set his net without tearing or losing it on rocks or wrecks on the sea-bed. He will share the information with selected friends or colleagues, - but not with the world at large. And what business is it of government to have your business operations known to that extent ? Would they demand the same kind of inside data from oil exploration companies, or stock exchange investors, or importers of scarce commodities ? I think not. John also reasoned that the log book and operations requests were the thin edge of the wedge that was ultimately going to lead to further punitive legislation that would drive many boats out of business. In that idea his suspicions were later to proven to be quite correct. So he submitted his log book and data sheets to the fishery officer in Lochinver, but minus the items he regarded as private.

Now, this offence, if offence it was, should have been regarded as a statutory one, but the government regarded it as criminal. Every industry has to contend with an increasing number of regulations and paperwork, much of which impedes rather than helps, and often is of no apparent relevance to government. But try telling that to an ‘apparatchik’ civil servant, and especially one working for the European Union or one of its servile national governments. The EU common fisheries policy is a huge sacred cow which must be protected and defended at all costs. There must be no deviation from or diminution of its regulations. Any attempt to defy it is regarded like treason. So John was duly summonsed and had to appear in Dornoch Sheriff Court which handled cases for the district of Sutherland.

But amazingly, Sheriff Ewan Stewart of Dornoch, was not impressed by the Crown case against this troublesome skipper. The charge was dismissed on a technicality. “No case to answer”, was the Sheriff’s honest conclusion. This put the cat among the fishery department pigeons in Edinburgh, Westminster and Brussels. Sheriff Stewart was later demoted from the bench, apparently for his refusal to bow to political pressure, - the only one in Scotland to suffer such a fate in that period.

The attitude of government fisheries authorities appeared to be “How dare this skipper get away with that, and snub his nose at the mighty CFP ?” So, at great taxpayer expense, the government hired the Lord Advocate for Scotland, Baron Rodger of Earlsferry, former Solicitor General for Scotland, to review the case and the decision of the Sheriff in Dornoch. The case was heard in the High Court, Edinburgh on the 26th of May 1992, and needless to say, the decision was overturned by the Lord Advocate who found John guilty of criminal conduct against the common fisheries policy of the European Union, and sent him back to the Dornoch court for sentencing.

John was resolute. There was no way he would plead guilty or pay a fine. He was prepared to go to jail to make his point against the CFP that was destroying the Scots fishing industry and putting many hard working fishers out of business. Despite pleas from his wife, he had his suitcase packed with the bare necessities for a long prison term. In Dornoch he faced a different Sheriff, and there was no expectation he would be sympathetic like his predecessor. But Sheriff James Fraser declared that he understood the issues that motivated John to act as he did. However, he said that the Dornoch decision had been overturned by the High Court (albeit on a technicality) and he therefore had no option but to pass sentence. They waited with bated breath for the penalty. “My sentence is, that I admonish you”, was the Sheriff’s pronouncement. And with that he let the defendant go, although from John’s point of view, with a criminal record against his name.

(As a postscript to the above, on September 19, 1999, the Herald newspaper published a report on cronyism and an ‘old boy’s network’ in Scotland’s high legal circles. The newspaper stated that members of all political parties had voiced their concerns about the ‘legal mafia’ that determined appointments, and the related ‘back-scratching’ that went on. Professor Black of Edinburgh University said that appointments, though legal, were thoroughly distrustful and made one wonder what ‘favours’ were called in. Two senior judges who were mentioned as prime examples of the cronyism and jobs-for-the-boys practice, were Lord Earlsferry (the one who found my skipper cousin guilty of criminal disregard for EC rules), and Lord Donald Mackay, who were instrumental in each other’s promotions and appointments.)

Fisher protests in other lands

We do not associate the Arab world or the Middle East with fish, but countries like Oman and Yemen have large fishing fleets, and fish is a major item in the protein intake of ordinary people in that part of the world. Twelve years before Yemen re-united in 1990, I was in North Yemen, assisting its fishery which was concentrated around the port of Hodeidah on the southern Red Sea. The fishing fleet was composed mainly of motorised houris and dhows which harvested mackerels, sardines, and bottom fishes. Before my visit a fleet of shrimp trawlers from Kuwait had attempted to fish in Yemeni waters, under an international business arrangement, but had encountered fierce opposition from the Hodeidah fishermen who sent a large delegation to Sanaa to protest to President Ali Abdullah Saleh., who responded quickly by cancelling the fishing permits for the Kuwaiti fleet.

The Indonesian President, Soeharto, was to take similar action shortly after that to protect his fishers in the Java Sea, after they had complained to the Governor of East Java about shrimp trawlers operating on their fishing grounds. In the Indonesian case, the trawlers were owned by local businessmen of ethnic Chinese origin. Both incidents illustrate a difference in attitude to the fishing sector in poorer or less developed countries. Despite prevalent corruption and limited democracy, social stability, and therefore social justice, remain important to the rulers.

In Cambodia, the fishermen made their protests known in more subtle ways. Perhaps after the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, they had no appetite for armed confrontation, although some ethnic Vietnamese fishers did fire guns at fishery officers and burn down one provincial fishery office. But for most of the Khmer fishermen, the protest took the form of voting for opposition parties at national and local elections. Since the population of fishing communities was numbered in the millions, this caused the government some concern. So, in an interesting example of altruistic action by a government not renowned for its social concern, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a major fishery reform in the year 2000. This reform took 56 per cent of fishing rights away from commercial companies, and gave them to local fishing communities. It was hailed as a major step forward in fisheries management by the UN and the development banks who supported its implementation. Despite related issues like rural poverty, land-grabbing, and some illegal fishing, the reforms have worked well and have empowered hundreds of fishery dependent communities and enabled them to improve their livelihood base and conserve their natural resources.

What has happened to our fisheries and fishing communities in Britain and Ireland, and across much of Europe and North America, is reflected to a greater degree in the poorer countries of Asia, Africa, and south and central America. In most of those lands, the numbers of fishermen are much higher, and the need to maintain employment in fishing and farming sectors, more vital to national social and economic stability. Our northern governments may regard the fishery sector as unimportant or even expendable, but for countries in Asia and the Far East, it is their major supplier of protein food, and a significant employer of rural people, both male and female. A modern industrialised state can provide unemployment benefit to redundant fishers, and offer them some modest prospects of other work. It may encourage coastal communities to develop alternative sources of income from tourism or other service activities. But a poor country with a large population simply does not possess those options. There is no unemployment benefit, and little health care. Without work or income, families starve, or are thrown back on their meagre resources to survive. For those reasons the governments of countries like India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China, value their large artisanal fisheries which produce low-cost protein food and keep millions of landless peasants in work.

The very different approach to fishery and agriculture development in less affluent states is reflected in the work and goals of the United Nations Agencies, chiefly FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation formed in 1945 to address global food production. Unlike the World Bank and U.S. AID, which focused solely on profits and western style capitalist development, the FAO (and IFAD, and UNDP) has consistently regarded social benefits and environmental sustainability as equal in importance to economic and financial viability.


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