View: Fishing industry needs radical change of government thinkingJane Sandell, CEO, UK Fisheries 12 February 2024
In what will (almost) certainly be the election year of 2024, we at UK Fisheries have now to invest our hopes in a change of government if there is to be any possibility of a thriving distant waters fishing industry in the north-east of England.
This is not because we’re a political organisation – we are not. It is because, despite four years of patiently making our case to a succession of Conservative Fisheries Ministers, we still have significantly less than half of the whitefish quota that we were able to fish in our traditional grounds prior to Brexit.
In a time of increased focus on food security in the UK this is absolutely absurd. Until 2020, our distant waters trawlers, including Kirkella, used to catch roughly one in twelve of the portions of fish served in chippies up and down the country. We were, in fact, the only UK operator fishing for cod and haddock in the rich and sustainable waters of the Norwegian Barents Sea. That figure is now more like one in 25, and the balance has been made up by increased imports from Norway, Iceland – or even Russia, which is still overtly or covertly supplying frozen fillets to the UK market.
The consequences of this have been devastating for our crews, for their families, for our business and for the prospects of future investment in this industry that is so economically and culturally important to the Humberside region. Last year we had to sell Farnella, one of our two trawlers, and in total we have been forced to lay off 74 loyal crew members. With almost all of our crew based in the UK, this means that their skills and experience are being lost to the industry.
We don’t know for certain why Defra negotiators, using negotiating mandates approved by their political bosses, have consistently privileged a handful of vessels over every other part of the UK fishing fleet as they distribute the spoils of the much-vaunted Brexit ‘Sea of Opportunity’ to the few, not the many.
What we do know is that these vessels based in Scotland have banked an extra £1,400 for every £1 made by each of the 2,000 vessels in the rest of the UK fleet. Even the Scottish government boasts that some 82% of all the additional quota derived from the EU since Brexit has benefited its large pelagic vessels (about 25 in number). Meanwhile, Defra invariably claims to be aiming for a ‘balanced’ settlement for the fleet in its annual quota negotiations with our trade and fishing partners around the North Sea. It has consistently failed to deliver – and catastrophically so for most of the UK fleet.
For 2024, Defra managed to secure just 5,935 tonnes of cod quota in its talks with Norway. In common with everything else in fisheries, the breakdown is complicated, but for those who are interested it is this: 700 tonnes of cod at North Norway plus 100 tonnes of bycatch; 4,144 tonnes of cod at Svalbard; and (probably) 1,091 tonnes of cod in NAFO area 3M.
A more telling figure is how this total compares with the years under the Common Fisheries Policy, when Norway cod quotas were negotiated by the EU and allocated by Brussels to the UK. In 2018, for example (when the Total Allowable Catch was higher), we had 19,500 tonnes available in our traditional grounds.
The UK government cannot claim ignorance, nor that there were no means of obtaining something approaching adequate quotas for the distant waters fleet.
Generally speaking, quotas obtained by different nations through complex rounds of talks are later swapped to suit the operational needs and capabilities of the various fleets. We met with the current Minister in September 2023 (just before the 2024 negotiations commenced) and subsequently sent him a proposed negotiation mandate which included suggestions for how unfished UK quota, received as a windfall from Brexit, might easily be swapped with our partners for more whitefish.
Despite the current administration’s frequent trumpeting of its new post-Brexit quota arrangements, the UK fishing industry is in dire straits, as the balance of fish trade so clearly shows. According to Seafish, imported fish has a value five times that of domestic landings. In 2022, import values rose 16% to £3.64bn, of which £1.17bn was delivered by Norway, Iceland and the Faroes alone. Against this background you might think that the UK government would do everything in its power to protect the broad interests of our industry as a whole, but instead it has continued to favour a tiny handful of pelagic vessels.
Perhaps Labour, if it is elected, will see things differently. Maybe any new administration would understand the true meaning of a ‘balanced’ fisheries settlement, and the value of the significant direct investment that would follow a return to something like the quota arrangements we enjoyed prior to Brexit. Perhaps UK Fisheries might be able to re-employ some of those trawlermen whose family stories have been linked with distant waters fishing for generations, and whose cultural identities are intimately bound with the sea. It might also be that a change in government would lead to a different attitude towards negotiations with other fishing and trade partners such as Greenland or the Faroes, which have yielded nothing for UK fishers since Britain left the EU.
But what we need is certainty. While we will never campaign politically, we will welcome any new administration that understands the importance of fishing to our people, our region and our country, and which works to ensure prosperity for every sector, including our own.
The UK’s distant waters trawler, Kirkella, fishing for cod in Norwegian waters