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Small-scale Fishermen Defeat Trawler Barons in Court Battle for Fish

Sustainability Economics Politics +4 more

UK - Greenpeace is urging the government to push ahead with a major shake-up of the UK fishing quota system after an attempt by big fishing firms to protect their stranglehold on Britain's fish was roundly defeated in the High Court.

Lucy Towers thumbnail

In a landmark ruling on an unprecedented legal battle for the control of the UK fishing quota, the court backed the government's decision to redistribute some of the unused fishing allowances held by the industry heavyweights to small inshore fishing boats.

In a judgment that has laid bare the shaky foundations on which the current quota system is built, the Court rejected all three grounds on which the industry lobby challenged the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. These include a claim that fishing quota cannot be taken away from the current holders because it’s private property. The defeat of this argument should now be used by the government to reverse decades of creeping privatisation of Britain’s fish, once described by a legal expert as the ‘biggest property grab since the Norman invasion’.

Fisheries minister Richard Benyon's decision to shift unused fishing quota from one sector of the fleet to another marks the first serious attempt in decades to tackle the imbalance in the distribution of commercial fishing rights in the UK.

Over 95 per cent of this resource has been sewn up by a group of Fish Producer Organisations – powerful consortia of vessel owners representing mostly large and often foreign-controlled trawlers. Small-scale fishermen have access to only four per cent of fishing quota despite making up three quarters of Britain's fleet. Small boats also account for two thirds of jobs at sea in England, and are generally considered to fish in a more low-impact way than larger trawlers.

Greenpeace and the New Under Ten Fishermen's Association (NUTFA), who represent small-scale fishermen, intervened in the case to argue that the right to fish must be treated as a public good, held in trust by the government, who should distribute it to those fishermen who operate more sustainably, play by the rules, and offer the best return for consumers and the local economy.

Commenting on the ruling, Greenpeace ocean campaigner Ariana Densham said: “This ruling is a great victory not just for small-scale fishermen, but for anyone who cares about the future of our seas and coastal communities. The judge has demolished the arguments used by the fishing barons to justify their stranglehold on Britain's fish, giving back control of our seas to the public and our elected government.

“With the backing of the UK High Court, the fisheries minister Richard Benyon is in a stronger position than ever before to wipe the slate clean on decades of monumental mismanagement of fishing quota by successive governments. It's time to build a vibrant and viable future for the UK’s marine environment and the fishing communities that depend on it.

“Fishing opportunities must go to those fishermen who guarantee the best return for our environment, our coastal communities, and our economy.”

In his written judgment, Mr Justice Cranston acknowledged that ‘fish are a scarce resource and decisions relating to it have important, social, economic and environmental implications.’ The judge also found ‘some force’ in Greenpeace’s argument that ‘statements about fishing quota and the fixed quota allocation system have always to be understood against the background that fish are a public resource.’ He also added: “No one can own the fish of the sea.”

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen' Federation also commented: "We need to examine the ruling closely so as to see the reasoning behind the decision, but it should be pointed out that fishermen have been adhering to a quota system created by government and have followed it in good faith.

"It remains to be seen what the impact will be in Scotland because the make-up of the fleet and the species caught is different compared with south of the border.

"However, it is important to make the point that small-scale inshore boats simply don't have the capacity to catch large amounts of quota and are also not able to operate in offshore areas. Similarly, larger boat operators have no desire to see the demise of the inshore fleet, and vice versa. To ensure the continuing supply of an incredibly important food resource, a sensible balance needs to be maintained. If there are any reallocations to be made eventually as a consequence of the High Court decision, consultation with all parts of the industry and great care will be needed."

Coming just weeks after a crucial deal struck in Brussels over new EU fishing laws, the ruling paves the way for the fisheries minister to implement what is likely to be a crucial element of Europe’s new Common Fisheries Policy – the obligation for member states to consider environmental, social, and economic criteria in the allocation of fishing quota.

The amount of quota that can be reallocated as a direct result of the ruling, and which covers species like cod, sole, and herring, will now go into a common pool shared by small-scale fishermen in different parts of the UK, including the south and east coasts of England.

Jerry Percy, NUTFA's chief executive, commented: “This ruling entirely vindicates the minister's decision to reallocate a small percentage of constantly unused fishing quota from the larger-scale operators to those smaller vessels in desperate need of it. It now gives the minister the opportunity to review the entire basis of allocating fishing rights and, through that, provide a lifeline to the smaller-scale fishermen who are the lifeblood of many coastal communities.”

Mr Justice Cranston, in a damning passage on the industry lobby’s attempt to have their property rights over Britain’s fish recognised by the court, also stated that 'producer organisations and their members have no proprietary interest in the fishing stock itself' and that 'fixed allocation quota units [...] give no rights to any specific amount of fishing stock in advance of the annual Ministerial decisions on quota.' In another passage the judge described the trading in fishing quota as ‘built very much of sand’ and producer organisations’ estimate of the value of their quota as ‘opaque’.

The allocation of fishing quota has come under intense scrutiny after a Greenpeace investigation revealed that a large chunk of it is controlled by overseas companies who, according to the government’s own estimates, contribute little or nothing to the UK economy. Official figures also show that a third of fish caught in British waters is landed abroad.

There’s no publicly available information about who holds fishing quota, leading to speculation that banks and even football clubs may have bought quota as a financial investment.

Greenpeace and NUTFA have been represented by Harrison Grant Solicitors instructing Kassie Smith QC of Monckton Chambers.