Island fishing communities attack ‘cynical’ Environment Secretary

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Councillors and fishermen’s leaders in the Western Isles have criticised the Environment Secretary, Richard Lochhead, for announcing a four week consultation period for controversial Marine Protection Areas (MPAs) that includes the Christmas holidays.

On Friday the Scottish government announced two fishing areas around the islands, near Mingulay and St Kilda will close.

A further two key fishing grounds for island boats, around the Small Isles and Wester Ross, will be involved in the new consultation period.

Councillor Uisdean Robertson from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, who chairs the joint Fisheries Industry Group formed to fight the closures, said: “We were stunned that two valuable areas have been closed without listening to the local community, and with no further discussion.

“Announcing a short consultation a few days before Christmas, when most people are enjoying some time with their families, is an extremely cynical move by the Environment Secretary.

“Could you choose a worse time to tell families their jobs are at risk? It is difficult to argue with those who say that Mr Lockhead seems to care more about the seabed than job losses in fragile island communities.”

He added: “We have warned the Cabinet Secretary the statistics produced by Marine Scotland to justify the closure of vital fishing grounds around the islands and West Coast are seriously flawed.

“But his government seems to be determined to ignore the evidence and impose closures that would kill off jobs among island fishermen and seriously threaten the viability of two processing plants that employ more than 70 staff.

“We have to be given more time to respond.”

The SNP MP for the Western Isles, Angus MacNeil, has also asked the government in Edinburgh to extend the consultation period beyond January 17 saying that he had received “almost instantaneous reaction of dismay” to the latest announcement on MPAs.

The MP has been quoted in the media warning that the MPAs are being handled in a way that will be economically damaging for the islands and the west coast.

The Secretary of the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association, Duncan MacInnes, welcomed the intervention by his local MP: “The figures produced by Marine Scotland are completely wrong and have massively underestimated the negative economic impact on the islands.

“For example, in the waters around Mingulay the figures are wrong by a factor of ten but they have closed this area without any further consultation.

“In St Kilda they even got the method of fishing wrong but still closed the grounds, barring our boats from catching cray fish, which is the most valuable catch in Scottish waters.

“We are delighted that Angus MacNeil is supporting our fishing communities and hope his own government listens to him. There is no doubt the closures would force many young fishing families to leave the islands.

“They seem to forget that our boats have been fishing sustainably in the same waters for generations.”

He added: “The government has also promised to spend £500,000 on environmental monitoring over the next three years. This beggars belief.

“Should this monitoring not have happened before they impose closures that will threaten dozens of jobs?”