Today the New Economics Foundation published a report on fishing. It says that if we reduce fishing pressure (ie catch less fish) then in ten years, stocks will recover to a point where we’ll actually catch more fish.
It also argues that small-scale fishermen, who use low impact methods (like the ones we work with here at SoleShare), should be given more quota than they currently have, so they would be allowed to land and sell more fish. This would obviously mean taking quota away from the bigger trawlers whose methods use more energy, have greater impacts on the marine environment and employ less people.
This isn’t some loony left wing idea either. The Common Fisheries Policy, the piece of European legislation governing fishing in our shared seas, actually set out to do this across the board, starting in January.
As you can imagine though, the vested interests of the large fleets want to hold on to their quota. Bertie Armstrong, head of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (the big industry body) has said:
"Redistributing quota is a bit like saying to a farmer who has looked after his land and invested in his business over generations - thanks for all you have done and your stewardship of the land, but we are now going to take away your fields and give them over to allotment farmers."
Well it’s not. The Common Fisheries Policy and the industrial trawler barons it has created have done little to help fish, fishermen or the wider marine environment. The past 20 years has been a mess. Those in charge, who have grown fat on the subsidies and found themselves in positions of power are obvious advocates of maintaining the status quo.
Mr Armstrong is also purposefully framing the issue in this certain way. By aligning fishermen with farmers, it instantly conjures up images of Mugabe’s reallocation of farms in the 90’s. A policy move which moved Zimbabwe from the breadbasket of Africa to one of the world’s most food insecure nations.
This is harmful rhetoric and totally irrelevant. We’re not giving quota to people who’ve never gone fishing before. We’re simply taking some of the quota from the big boys and giving it to the inshore fleet.
Remember the UK inshore fleet makes up 80% of the UK fishing fleet, yet only gets to catch 4% of the fish. One single (Dutch) vessel, the Cornelis Vrolijk has 6% of the UK quota, more than the whole inshore fleet combined! And it employs a handful of people.
Inshore fishermen fish on the same patch of sea every day. It’s in their interest to look after it, because they rely on its underlying health to supply them with the fish they catch. While the way they fish is more environmentally sustainable, it’s not economically sustainable. We set up SoleShare to give them more money for the fish they catch, but if they’re not allowed to catch any fish, there’s not much we can do!
Don’t get me wrong, I'm not saying we should transition to a fleet made entirely of small dayboats, but we need to make sure we have a resilient, profitable inshore fleet. We need a mixture of larger and smaller vessels. They serve different needs and a healthy mix is best for supply, best for the seas and best for employment in the industry.
At the end of the day this is about the right to fish. The fish in the sea are not owned by fishermen. They are as much ours as they are theirs, they’re a public good. It shouldn’t be up to Producer Organisations to say who gets to catch what, we need a fairer more transparent system.
Greenpeace are currently fighting a legal battle to find out exactly who owns all the quota in this country. The government, despite a number of Freedom of Information requests have stayed tight lipped on the matter. Why, we don’t know. Maybe Putin owns it all, or ISIS, or the French government.
What we do know is that no matter who owns it, those who control it have done a terrible job with it over the past few decades. The number of fishermen has declined and the number of healthy fish stocks with it.
Redistribution shouldn’t be a dirty word. We should just reward those that do a job well with the ability to do the job even better.