Taking back control of fishing

“We want our waters back!”

Fishing featured prominently in the recent EU referendum debates. One of the defining images was Nigel Farage (UKIP leader at the time) leading a flotilla of fishing boats up the Thames to Westminster with the demand “we want our waters back!”. Which begs the question, which waters are our waters? And a related question, which fish are our fish?

Where do fish come from?

Some fish clearly come from UK waters: common prawns, for example, live around our coastline and don’t venture far from their burrows. But some fish, such as mackerel, pass only briefly though UK waters on extensive migrations. An online ‘Fact Check’ article, explains that many fish species “live in different places either at different times of the year or in different phases of their life cycle”. Which makes it rather more difficult to say exactly where fish come from.

I recently signed up for a community fish box scheme (like a fruit and veg box, only fish) on the assumption that such schemes support British fishermen and promote sustainable fishing practices. The EU referendum debates made me keen to take a closer look at what ‘control’ of fishing might actually mean before and after Brexit.

Fishy food miles

Where does the seafood in our local fishmongers come from? Do all the fish caught in UK waters find their way to British fish counters?  Strangely enough it seems that we actually export a lot of the fish caught by our own fishermen and import a lot of the fish we eat. According to the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations 70% of all seafood sold in Britain is either cod, haddock, salmon, tuna or prawns, and much of this is imported. On the other hand we export significant quantities of fish including familiar species (mackerel, crab and scallops) and others many people may not have heard of (dab, pouting, coley, megrim, red gurnard or hake, anyone?).

This is, of course, frustrating for British fishermen. It would be easier to sell fish to us if the British public were more aware and proud of the breadth and variety of our coastal fish heritage. During the 2013 BBC series The Fisherman’s Apprentice Monty Hall suggested that: “Fishermen might catch one hundred different species of fish each year, but because most customers only ask for four or five different types of fish the rest either goes back into the sea or has little or no monetary value at market”.

One possible solution is to introduce more selective fishing gear. This isn’t without cost, of course. The cheaper and more sustainable option is that British people simply eat more of what British fishermen catch.

Community fish box schemes go some way to encouraging us to be more adventurous. Jack Clarke of Soleshare refers to the “lucky dip” nature of the business: “There’s no choice: our members get whatever’s being caught that day”. My own experience since joining Soleshare is that the catch of the day approach plus an extensive recipe collection have transformed my knowledge of different fish and how to cook them.

What control do small fishermen have?

A close up of fishing traps at Boscastle in Cornwall
Photographer: Sue Phillips

There were 21,443 fishermen in the UK in 1970 but only 11,845 in 2014, according to the Marine Management Organisation. Presumably fishing is becoming a less viable way of earning a living as the fishing industry strives for ever more ‘efficient’ ways of catching fish. So would it solve the problems for British fishermen if we all made more efforts to buy a wider variety of fish caught by local fishermen around our coasts? Well, it would help. But, unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

The mobile nature of fish shoals means that some form of sharing arrangement is desirable to ensure that everyone gets their fair share of what is, in effect, a global natural resource. Such arrangements can also help safeguard fragile marine eco-systems. Agreements and quotas, including those enforced by the EU Common Fisheries Policy, should ensure that fish stocks don’t decline to a point where they simply can’t recover (which would mean everyone loses out in the long term); and aren’t reduced to levels that have an adverse impact on other sea-life.

Quotas are a simple idea in principle but far from simple to implement in practice. Fish on Friday, a collaborative project initiated by the Fishmongers’ Company to promote sustainable approaches to fishing, report that: “Over the years, quotas have been cut and fleets reduced, in an effort to allow stocks to recover from overfishing. But fishermen don’t believe the rules are applied, or enforced, fairly.”

Bringing decisions closer to the fishing grounds

Fishing boat at Boscastle
Photographer: Sue Phillips

In the last few years the EU addressed this issue in two significant ways. First of all, they took steps to delegate implementation of overall policies to national governments; in their words, bringing decisions “closer to the fishing grounds”. And, secondly, they require those governments to take account of social and environmental criteria, as well as economic, in allocating fishing opportunities (including quotas). This sounded progressive to me. It certainly sounded like the EU had already handed back a significant degree of control.

However, in 2015 Greenpeace took the Government to court arguing that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) had failed to implement Article 17 of the EU’s reformed Common Fisheries Policy (the Article which requires consideration of environmental and social as well as economic criteria). They point out that: “About 95% of the fishing quota is awarded to the larger end of the fleet, most notably domestic and foreign controlled industrial fishing businesses. Meanwhile, local, sustainable fishermen, which are the heart of many coastal economies, get just 4%.” Greenpeace argued that around 5,000 small boats operated by British fishing families should be prioritised for more quota by the UK Government because “they fish sustainably, have lower CO2 emissions and generate more jobs and social wellbeing than the industrial scale fleet”.

DEFRA, on the other hand, state that: “Any company applying to fish our quota must demonstrate a clear economic link to this country, and all large UK-flagged vessels, the great majority of which are UK-crewed, make their catches in offshore waters that cannot be reached by local inshore fishermen.”

Greenpeace lost their legal challenge. Ultimately this was due to the fact that the EU ceded more control to national governments by not specifying the degree to which environmental and social criteria should be taken into account by ‘decision makers’. DEFRA complied with the letter of EU law in implementation of the latest iteration of the Common Fisheries Policy, but perhaps not with the intended spirit.

Does this matter? Well, clearly it matters to operators of smaller fishing boats (often defined as under ten metres in length). Fish4Ever, a company selling tinned fish products, and whose ethos is a “holistic land-sea-people approach to sustainability”, argue that: “Big business doesn’t go far enough”. They suggest that: “Small boats lose out to big industrial boats even if the small boats use better methods”. Many middlemen pay the same rate regardless of how the fish has been caught. So small boats using environmentally sustainable, but more time-intensive, fishing methods such as static nets, pots, rods and lines find the economic viability of their operations compromised.

As regards Brexit, the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations point out: “Promises have been made and expectations raised during the referendum campaign and it is now time to examine if and how they can be delivered.” But, in the light of the failure of the Greenpeace legal challenge, it remains to be seen whether the Government will change its stance on quotas for smaller operators such as those who joined the UKIP flotilla, and whether any such changes would compensate for the loss of EU subsidies, including European Maritime and Fisheries Funding (EMFF). (This €243m fund was established with aims including part-funding the “purchase or development of innovative gear for more selective fishing, or to help develop new markets for fish that were previously discarded.”)

Can we control large fishing operations?

The EU’s 2014 Common Fisheries Policy reforms came about partly due to a cycle of seemingly self-perpetuating problems in the fishing industry. Fish stocks had been plummeting, affecting some 80% of all species in EU waters, due to there being “too many fishing vessels for the number of fish that can be safely removed from the seas”; which in turn led to low profits or losses, which created further incentives to over-fish.

Industrial-scale fishing may result in more affordable fish for consumers, but it’s been argued that the methods used degrade marine ecology in ways that cause much concern for the future. Some campaigners argue that industrial fishing techniques create risks of fish today, famine tomorrow.

The delegation of implementation of shared agreements to member states by the reformed 2014 Common Fisheries Policy makes government and the fishing industry much more directly accountable for “good stewardship of the seas”. The delegation of ‘control’ by the EU implies an associated ethical responsibility to make decisions with a long-term focus. This could include safeguarding fish stocks; protection of marine ecology; enhancement of food security; and ensuring the future livelihoods of coastal communities involved not only in catching but also in processing, packaging and transporting fish.

Key questions, given that the vast majority of fishing opportunities are currently given to a very small number of large fishing companies, is whether and how larger operations can be held accountable for environmentally and socially responsible fishing practices, and what impact Brexit will have on such accountability in the future?

What control do consumers have?

Fishing traps at Boscastle, with shadows
Photographer: Sue Phillips

Consumers also have a key role: which fish we buy and how much we are prepared to pay has a direct impact on British fishermen. As Fish4Ever point out: “Low prices come at a cost that is both social and environmental”. On cost, it’s worth bearing in mind that fishing is statistically the most dangerous job in the UK. A 2010 BBC report found that fishermen in Britain have a one in 20 chance of being killed on the job during the course of their working lives. Seafish report that seven fishermen died during work in 2015, and in the first six months of this year, nine deaths have already been reported.

Fortunately, less well-known fish species tend to cost less than more popular options so choosing to buy sustainable fish options, at least now and again, shouldn’t break the bank.

If you join a community fish box scheme, you will have less control over what particular types of seafood you eat on a week-by-week basis. On the other hand, you will have made a conscious decision to buy freshly caught and seasonal fish from a British fisherman, and to reduce food transport miles.

However, no-one claims that coastal operators of small day boats can meet all the UK’s seafood needs. The Marine Conservation Society suggests a number of ways you can make more sustainable choices whether you buy your fish from a box scheme, fishmonger or supermarket. These include being more adventurous in your fish shopping; and choosing fish caught using methods with lower environmental impact (look out for descriptions such as hand-line, diver, pot, trap-caught, hand-gathered, and so on).

What matters most: control or collaboration?

It’s worth giving a little more consideration to what we understand by ‘control’ . . . . Control over what? Quotas? Maintaining and increasing fish stocks? Access to “our waters” by other countries? What about our access to waters controlled by European countries or other parts of the world? And control by whom? Government? Larger operators? Small operators? If any particular player has more control, the others have less by default.

As the EU point out: “If not coordinated, actions taken by one set of stakeholders may undermine the livelihood of others”. In the context of Brexit, NFFO state: “The management of fisheries is far too complex and important to be left to government and that is why it essential that respected industry representatives are at the heart of the fisheries component of the Brexit negotiations.”

So, coming back once more to the question of taking back control of our seas, Richard Barnes, Professor of Law at Hull University offers the following observation from a legal perspective: “The call to “take back our seas” implies ownership or exclusivity – going it alone. This is unlikely. Under international law, coastal states are stewards, not owners, of their exclusive economic zone, and obliged to cooperate in fisheries management . . . There is scope for change, but it must ensure fishing is conducted in a truly sustainable manner, and in a way that ensures the integrity and security of marine ecosystems. Britain can’t do this alone – even after Brexit.”


  • There aren’t that many community fish schemes in the UK at the moment but consider joining if there’s one in your area: Soleshare (east and north London); Faircatch (south-west London); or My Community Fish Box (Emsworth and Chichester, Hampshire).
  • Be more adventurous: try out different types of fish caught in British waters. (Even if you don’t or can’t join a community fish scheme, their websites will give you some ideas where to start, and recipes).
  • A good fishmonger will be able to provide information on where and how your fish was caught, and probably advise you on cooking tips as well. Ask if they have a policy on sustainability (eg. The Fin and Flounder in east London focus on day boats and line caught fish, and commit to “offer the highest quality fish which we will always try to source on recommendations from leading bodies on sustainability: MSC/Pisces Responsible/Seafish. We hope to provide all our customers information on where and how our fish is caught. We source only the best quality fish from sustainable boats”).
  • If you live near the coast, buy directly from local fishermen if possible. For example, Fresh from the Sea in Port Isaac in Cornwall specialize in sustainable Cornish fish and sell crab and lobster caught from their own boat, the Mary D, in their shop and café.
  • Download the Marine Conservation Society mobile app for up-to-date advice on which fish to buy and which to avoid or, if you don’t have a mobile, you can download a PDF pocket guide. Don’t get overwhelmed by the advice, though. So long as you eat a wide variety of fish when it’s in season, and if you make a point of asking for fish caught by British day boats, you’re helping to support sustainable fishing.

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Sue Written by:

I'm a finance professional who's interested in whether we're accounting for the right things in the right ways.

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