Ever since the Brexit referendum we’ve heard a lot about ‘our fish’. No one truly owns the fish in the sea – fish eggs and fast swimmers prevent ear tags from working here – but for the purposes of management, fish are fundamentally a public resource owned by all of us. In the UK, neglect over marine resources has seen them accidentally privatised, but there is now an opportunity to change this.
Commercial fisheries in the UK are predominantly managed through quota limits – a cap on the amount of fish that can be harvested in a given year. These quota limits are agreed annually by EU fishing ministers, distributed to Member States in fixed shares, and then distributed by Member States to their fishing fleet according to national legislation. Brexit does not change this – the UK has always had this power over what happens with fishing quota.
Whether the UK has used this power is another story. The UK governments (fishing is a devolved matter) originally allocated quota based on historical catch records in the 1980s (a process that rewarded those overfishing the most and penalised the small-scale fleet which were not required to keep catch records at the time). Since this point these quota allocations became ‘fixed’ in the 1990s and continue today as ‘fixed quota allocations’ (FQAs).
UK fishing quota had, unbeknownst to the public, become accidentally privatised: as a court ruled in 2012 a “legitimate expectation” around FQAs had formed, despite this expectation being “built very much of sand” as “no one can own the fish of the sea”. With an estimated value of £1.1 billion, researchers cite this ownership claim as the largest “squatting claim” in UK history.
This transfer from public control into private hands is not just shocking for its value, but also for the significance for marine resources and the little scrutiny it has received. Successive governments have promised to do more for small fishing communities, but without quota reallocation the trend to centralise in large ports will continue. There are calls to allocate FQAs based on social and environmental criteria, but again, without reallocation, there is no opportunity for this.
Although managing fishing quota has always been up to UK governments, the fact that a UK Fisheries Bill is coming – we assume at some point – gives an opportunity to change policy and reclaim fishing quota as a public resource and allocate it for public good.
To much disappointment, the draft Fisheries Bill has not seized the opportunity and instead kept the FQAs in place. The government is now only consulting on what it terms ‘new quota’ from Brexit. This is problematic as the ‘new’ quota does not actually exist as there has been no Brexit and no agreement with the EU on a fair way to share the many species moving between UK and EU waters. If this quota does arrive, most of it will not be for the ‘right’ species for the small-scale fleet to benefit. The concept of new quota is misleading anyway as recovering fish populations increase the tonnage of quota from one year to the next, so there is more quota going around. This provides the opportunity to change the quota percentages (i.e. the FQAs) without anyone being worse off. But most importantly, if not now – when we are thinking about how our fishing industry should work after Brexit – then when?
The government’s timid approach which disadvantages the majority of stakeholders is likely explained by the powerful minority: the large-scale quota holders. The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) wrote a briefing in defence of the security provided by FQAs to ward off any changes to the system and implicitly to their existing FQA holdings.
Next week fishers, policymakers, and interest groups will be meeting to plan the ‘future of the inshore fisheries’. This is a chance to consider proposals that would work for the whole industry and wider society. Fixed quota allocations could continue for the majority of allocations, but with a time limit of, for example, 10 years. Fishers would have security for the entire period of validity and all legal ambiguity would cease. This would start with a notice period.
There would also be a one-off reallocation (potentially combined with any additional quota received) to the small-scale fleet to correct for historical injustices. Further, there could be two quota reserves: one for new entrants and one for an incentive-based allocation based on social and environmental criteria.
This system would protect the security the current FQA system (and individual quota systems used elsewhere) while reforming the system enough to deliver low-impact fishing, economic viability, thriving coastal community, and the other diverse objectives we have. Whatever objective, the ability to pursue it depends on reclaiming ‘our fish’ in the fullest sense and ending the privatisation of fishing quota.
Griffin Carpenter is a Senior Researcher at the New Economics Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue.