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Industrial fishing vessels rule the waves. Commercial fishing now covers a surface area four times greater than that of land based agriculture and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says one-third of commercial fish stocks are being caught at unsustainable levels.
However, the authors of a recent report which looked at data from 70,000 fishing vessels are not all doom and gloom. They say that overfishing can be prevented and that humans are not destined to overfish. And this is where small scale fisheries, such as the excellent Sole of Discretion initiative, have a vital role to play.
I recently visited this collective of small scale fishers, fishing out of Plymouth Harbour, to discover what commitment to fishing sustainably really looks like. Sole of Discretion are committed to obtaining fish and shellfish caught causing as little damage to the marine environment as possible, while contributing to the livelihood of small-scale fishers and their communities. A particularly important feature is ‘traceablity’; being able to follow clearly the path from fish to fork. Every fish caught can be traced back to a particular fisher and fishing boat.
Unlike the giant commercial fishing fleets, each boat is under 10 meters long and fishers use practices such as rod and line, static gill and trammel nets and mid-water trawls for shoaling species such as sardine or herring. These methods also reduce carbon emissions by using less fuel.
Sole of Discretion is owned by the community and ensures that the fishers are paid an agreed price rather than a market price, and that profits go back into their communities. As a Community Interest Company, the organisation is also playing an important role in keeping the skills of small-scale fishers intact and supporting sustainable and productive fishing practices into the future.
Sole of Discretion are also campaigning for fishing quotas to be allocated on the basis of environmental and social criteria, not just economic – as is already required under the Common Fisheries Policy.
We have yet to see if Michael Gove will cast his ‘Green Brexit’ net wide enough to include fishing communities. But the record to date is not encouraging. The low priority the government affords our small-scale fishing industry is demonstrated by the allocation of fishing quotas.
Within the Common Fisheries Policy, it is actually up to our Government to allocate fishing quotas. They could do this in a way which encourages small scale fishers operating in sustainable ways but prefer to support their allies in the industrialised fishing sector. While small-scale fishing boats under 10m in size make up four-fifths of the UK fishing fleet, just 4% of the quota is allocated to them. Meanwhile, five individual vessels between them net a fifth of the fishing quota.
This deeply unfair division in quotas is matched by a sharp divide in economic performance, with the large-scale fleet recording profit margins of 19% and the small-scale fleet operating at a profit margin of 0%. As with so many issues, the government points a fin at Brussels for harming local fishing communities, when in fact it is their own decisions which have cast small-scale fishermen adrift.
Of course fishers and their communities were some of the strongest supporters of Brexit. Some fishing groups have been talking up the ‘sea of opportunity’ that awaits them when the UK leaves the EU and in particular if we exit the Common Fisheries Policy. But a recent report from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) shows that Brexit is likely to create more losers than winners, and those who stand to lose most are small scale fishers. Unless the government suddenly adopts what NEF describe as a ‘Fisheries First’ scenario, where the UK government puts fisheries above all other interests in Brexit negotiations, most fishers are in for choppy waters.
Fisheries are considered small-fry when it comes to Brexit negotiations and there are fears that the UK will trade away our valuable fishing rights in return for protection of other sectors considered far more valuable to the UK economy. Even if they don’t, there is little evidence to suggest the government will suddenly tip the quota balance in favour of small-scale fishers. Furthermore, the majority of ports around the UK receive most of their landed value from small-scale vessels using pots and traps to catch mainly shellfish. These are mainly for European export, so any Brexit scenario involving the imposition of tariffs will mean these ports and the communities associated with them may be worse off as a result of Brexit.
What is so encouraging about Sole of Discretion is that they are committed to providing genuinely ethical fish and to supporting the sustainability of fishers and the fishing community, whether we are inside or outside the EU. As their founder, Caroline Bennett, points out: “Leaving the EU won’t save our fish – the marine environment is facing massive threats from over-fishing, pollution and climate change, whether we are in the EU or not.”
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