The British Fishing Industry

FishingAs like a game of tennis, claim and counterclaim are endlessly batted to and fro between those campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU and those who are campaigning for the UK to leave. In the end this hubbub gets diluted to little more than white noise. Whether it’s the EU’s incredulous edict for straight bananas or counterclaims with threats of tariffs it all seems to fall into that confusing tit-for-tat spat routine which makes people switch off and close their minds and ears. It ends up becoming yet another “It doesn’t affect me directly so, why should I bother to care?” moment.

This is why you should care. The following is just one example of only one area of one British industry completely affected by external factors placed upon it by the EU. That industry is fishing.

British trawlers, fishing vessels and commercial inshore fishing boats, their skippers and crews must be some of the most beleaguered, harassed and “put upon” within the entire EU. Fishermen in general have been one of the EU’s bogeymen targets but the “allowed” harassment of British fishermen has been nothing short of brutal.

One of the most recent fiascos of the EU’s handling of the fishing industry has been the disastrous affair concerning the ban on returning unwanted discards back in to the sea. Where the topic of unwanted by-catch and discarding is concerned the EU has continuously gone from one bungled effort to another, further exacerbating the predicament of fishermen.

Under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) the EU Fisheries Council meets every December and they decide what each country will be allocated, a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for each species of fish caught. In turn each country allocates these fish quotas to trawlers and fishing vessels. This is where the problems for fishermen begin. Place (pun intended) yourself in the position of a skipper on a fishing vessel, sat in the wheelhouse, setting out to sea to go gillnetting. Whether you’re an owner/skipper or employed as one, the pressures and worries are pretty much the same once you’ve slipped your moorings and cast off. No matter that in the back of your mind there will be thoughts of your crew’s safety, wondering how long it will take to be on the right fish species and whether you will catch enough fish to cover the overheads and pay the crew. Talking of overheads, there will be that nagging worry of hoping your gear lasts the trip with no expensive breakdowns; taking into account your destinations for shooting your gear and how soon you catch your quota, with the prevailing winds, tides and currents, what will the expense of burning all that fuel come to? Plus you have the worry of will the catch be healthy? Will the fish be free of parasites like cod worm? Add to that the concern of keeping your log and the paperwork for each haul constantly up to date and in order, even during rough seas just in case a RIB comes alongside and you are boarded by the authorities who will carry out an on the spot inspection, looking for any discrepancies or violations on your part and checking that your fish hold is correct and in order and the same with all your fishing gear and nets. Add to all that the worry of the constantly fluctuating price of fish when you return your catch to port and send it off to the fish market, surely that would be enough for any one person to fret over while trying to keep of sound mind?

You would think so, but that is not the case. As a skipper you will have other considerations to take into account. You’ve shot your gear, you know the monthly quotas for each species of fish your vessel has been allocated so, from now on with fair winds it should be plane sailing, right? Fishermen are not farmers, they can’t guarantee what they will, or will not catch. It is often said that fishermen are the last of the great hunter-gatherers. There are no certainties, no sure things. Even using the latest echo and sonar locators with all the modern digital gizmos, even they do not guarantee success. The only thing fishermen can guarantee is uncertainty; it is their one abiding companion in all matters concerning the sea.

As this hypothetical skipper, you’ve picked your spot, risking life and limb in all kinds of weather and seas, you’ve shot your gear and you’ve hauled in your lines. You’ve been fishing for cod and discounting by-catch you’ve caught your monthly quota for cod. But you fish hold is far from full and you still need to keep fishing. You’ve got no choice but to switch species for a fish which you still have got a monthly quota for, hake for example. You move on and shoot your gear again. The next time you haul your gear, you’ve been fortunate and you catch hake but you also happen to catch more cod. Not just cod but fine top quality cod fish. The problem is you’ve already met your quota of cod for this trip. Unfortunately, even if you land on your target species of fish, even if that species is shoaling, this does not mean that other species won’t be shoaling in the same location. This has always been the flaw with whatever ruling the CFP decides upon, the vagaries of fish.

In the past, those fine top quality cod fish you’ve just hauled in, which could have fed people and earned money for you, the crew and the vessel would have to be discarded. That’s right, due to some arcane and random CFP quota limit which the government had allocated to you, meant you had to discard, to throw the cod overboard to see them get picked up by seabirds or watch them sink to the sea floor. Since 1963 due to European legislation British fishing vessels in the North Sea alone have dumped well over £1 billion worth of cod. It seems almost impossible to comprehend such an amount lost of edible cod, wasted solely by legislation.

Common sense would tell you that just because a quota had been met it would be the sensible choice to keep and land the exceeded cod. That way the tally of exceeded cod could have been added on to the following month’s quota, giving a reduced quota for that month. Anything would have been more sensible than discarding good quality cod and other quota fish species back in to the sea. If the EU and CFP were truly concerned about sustainability and the potential collapse of certain fish species, with all those resources and funds available to the EU, why did they not decide to compensate and subsidise commercial fishermen enabling them to lay up their vessels for a certain period?

That was in the past. EU legislation has since moved on and changed. This has been due in part to the celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who, shocked by the volume of discards, with good intentions led the lobby against dumping with the Channel 4 series, Hugh’s Fish Fight. I’m sure he, like the participating fishermen and nearly everyone else was convinced that the resolution to these senseless discards would have seen a sensible solution similar to those mentioned in the previous paragraph. Unfortunately, what began as a harmless campaign to lobby against waste and dumping good quality fish became something completely different once the EU, the European Council and the CFP got their claws into it. As soon as the EU had grasped the discard agenda they twisted the proposed new ruling, changing the legislation to suit their own bizarre intentions and they turned what was a wasteful and needless ruling into one that is now utterly toxic. The European fishing industry is in this incredulous position, where skippers now not only have to retain all the fish (cod in our hypothetical scenario) which would have been discarded due to reaching their quota, but the entire by-catch of fish must be retained also. Skippers have ended up being required to return to port and land with fish holds that are partially full of unwanted by-catch. This legislation is doing nothing but harm to the eco-system and to those in the fishing industry. In the past skippers would have returned the by-catch (along with quota discards) back in to the sea. Both the fishermen and the eco-system along with the food chain benefitted from this. For the fishermen this meant unwanted and unsellable fish could be discarded leaving greater quotas for species of fish which are profitable. The eco-system also benefitted from the return of by-catch. A proportion of the by-catch would consist of juvenile fish, of which a considerable proportion would survive the process of being caught and returned to the sea. Those returned juvenile fish would mature into adulthood and become a part of the breeding stock, thus helping to ensure the future of their species. Those fish species which are simply unpopular with the consumer and unsellable that were discarded in the sea were also beneficial to the eco-system being re-entered into the food chain. From the moment of discard the by-catch had become a part of the food chain, firstly being predated by seabirds. On submersion the by-catch would be predated by those fish and mammals which prey on those species. For those fish which reached the seabed and were not consumed by crustaceans, they also provided nourishment for fish in the larval stages to that of fry and fingerling, plus a source of nourishment for a diverse array of other sea life. Even after all that, the benefits of the discarded by-catch didn’t end there. The fish from the by-catch that weren’t consumed quickly would have slowly broken down, releasing much needed, enriching nutrients into the sea, most notably Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS), which is the very essence of life, which gives the sea that tangy aroma which we all love to smell and whiff when we visit the seaside. This natural chemical DMS forms the building block of all sea life. Without DMS our seas and oceans would become lifeless deserts.

Thanks to the EU, the European Council and the CFP this is precisely what is happening. The EU on one hand claims to be the saviour of the environment, constantly passing new legislation to combat global warming or environmental damage. While on the other hand this same EU enforces legislation which bans discards, requiring fishing vessels to return from sea and land their entire by-catch, sending it to landfill to rot, yet depriving our seas and oceans of the nutrients which would break down and eventually go on to produce Dimethyl Sulfide, which all sea life requires. How can the EU be so contrary on this? Being a self appointed saviour of the environment while at the same time being so obstinate as to push this harmful and destructive ruling into legislation?

Granted, this destructive EU ruling on by-catch affects all fishing vessels within Europe, not just the British fishermen. But don’t let that fool you. Although all fishing vessels and their crews within Europe might claim to be hard done by, it’s the British fishing community who can rightly claim to be the most truly beleaguered.

Let us return to our hypothetical skipper and his fishing vessel. You’ve landed your catch and by-catch and your vessel is laid up in the harbour. You’re ready to go back out to sea, to start shooting your gear again and go fishing. The problem is you’ve already reached your quota of fish species for the month so, even though you and the crew are able to work and the expenses are mounting up, you’ve got to remain in harbour ticking off the days, waiting as best you can. Surely, this is the same situation for all skippers? All around the coastlines of Europe, skippers are simultaneously fretting on the shoreline, likewise counting off the days before they can return to sea?

As a hypothetical skipper do you want the bad news first? Or would you rather the really bad news first? Let’s go for the bad news. I’m guessing you’ve been under the assumption that all trawlers and fishing vessels were allocated identical fish quotas on species, irrespective of nationality? Well, you would be wrong, very wrong. As an example, let us take haddock quotas. As a hypothetical British skipper you would be able to catch 250kg of haddock per month. Sounds quite reasonable, doesn’t it? It does, until you discover your French counterpart skipper has a quota to catch 2,000kg of haddock per month. So your French counterpart can legally catch and land 8 times the amount of fish per month, every month. That’s just one EU nation and one species of fish.

In a similar vein to banning discards and retaining by-catch, if the EU, the European Council and the CFP were truly concerned about sustainability and the potential collapse of certain fish species, they would have ensured parity across the board issuing identical quotas at the lowest level to every European nation. The fact that the EU have not done so only goes to prove that any concerns from them about the environment or sustainability are very tenuous, to say the least. So far the only endangered species in fear of extinction from the seas appear to be British fishermen and their vessels! The position of hypothetical British skipper is beginning to look really stressful, isn’t it? Knowing all those other EU fishing vessels have been given far greater quotas than you. I bet by now you’re starting to feel beleaguered and harassed by the EU?

Now it’s time for the really bad news. Surely, this can’t get much worse? As a hypothetical British skipper this is going to make an unpleasant discovery to say the least. The EU Fisheries Council which annually allocates the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for each species of fish caught per nation consistently allocates a total quota to the entire British fleet of fishing vessels a sum of 13 per cent of fish in British waters. Basically, this means that British fishermen in their own waters have the legal right to be allowed to catch 13 per cent of the fish present in their own British waters. These allocated fishing rights and the permission to fish is solely granted by the EU Fisheries Council. What this also means is the EU Fisheries Council have allocated 87 per cent total annual (TAC) quotas and fishing rights in British waters to other nations within the EU.

The severe catch limitations placed upon British fishermen has had a detrimental effect throughout the British fishing industry. Despite Britain having a sustainable supply of fish to supply to British consumers, the low fishing quotas mean that suppliers have to import fish from overseas. It’s difficult to comprehend but Britain a maritime nation surrounded by the sea has to import nearly two-thirds of the fish which is consumed within Britain.

As a hypothetical British skipper you’ve learned about the stresses of being a British fisherman. You’ve discovered the unfair advantages which the fishing fleets in the rest of the EU hold over you. Do you believe this situation will ever be resolved amicably in favour of British fishermen? Or at least resolved with more parity?

One possible solution is Brexit, to vote to leave the EU. The future of Britain may be with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). The UK has been a past member of EFTA and current members include Iceland and Norway. They are two seafaring and fishing nations who understand Britain. Kindred spirits you might say. If Britain returned to EFTA, the other remaining members who also include Liechtenstein and Switzerland may become more emboldened together to renegotiate with the EU. Britain, Iceland and Norway could stand together, as one, to oppose their unfair treatment at the hands of the CFP compared to the other fishing countries within the EU.

At the beginning I mentioned how all this confusing talk ends up becoming yet another “It doesn’t affect me directly so, why should I bother to care?” moment. Hopefully, after reading this and placing yourself in the shoes of a hypothetical British skipper I do hope it makes you stop and think again, potentially making you bother to care. The next time you go to your local fish and chip shop and order a portion of battered cod and chips, I hope you stop to think what effort this has taken to reach you. Better still, I hope it makes you truly consider the idea of choosing Brexit and voting to leave the EU.

Further more; all I can recommend to readers of this blog is that you eat more fish. Don’t buy just any old fish, buy sustainable fresh British fish. Vary your choice of fish species, don’t always buy cod, and choose other sustainable species to help the British fishermen with their fish quotas. Give your support to the British fishermen. Unlike you, the hypothetical British skipper, these fishermen are very real, with very real concerns just like the dangers they face.

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