Fishing after Brexit: voices from the coast

The majority of the UK fleet is small-scale, but their desires are rarely heard

Battling the waves around our coast, fishers may seem peripheral to political decision-making, but, perhaps more than almost any other industry, the future of UK fishing is being shaped by Brexit. As a new UK Fisheries Bill was presented to the House of Commons on Thursday 25th October, legislative changes to fisheries is one of the areas that Brexit will impact first. During the lead up to the Brexit vote, fishing was often mentioned, but how much do we really know about the policy demands from fishing communities?

We have produced a short video that presents the voices of small-scale fishers, whose fishing methods have a low-impact on the marine environment. During spring and summer 2018, NEF visited locations around the UK coast to listen to their hopes and concerns for the fishing industry post-Brexit.

Why did we make this video?

Over the past decade, we have been researching UK fisheries and how they can be made fairer and more sustainable. Our economic impact analysis of Brexit scenarios, published last year, revealed that the picture is not a simple one, with the results depending to a great extent on both the Brexit scenario and the type of fishing: large or small vessels, quota or non-quota species, local market or export focused. When it comes to Brexit, fishers are not all in the same boat.

This means that different parts of the industry will experience the impact of Brexit differently, and their policy needs may conflict with one another. The interest of the fishing industry are not uniform, and while some fishers have powerful lobbying organisations working on their behalf, by their very nature small-scale fishers are spread out and have few forums to coordinate with each other. It is harder for small-scale fishers to speak with one voice and have a place at the table where their fate is being determined. Which fishers will the proposed policies benefit? And can we rewrite the rules of fishing policy so that all fishers have a brighter future ahead?

Bridge leading to the Isle of Skye

Why did we go to these places?

Half of the UK fleet is small-scale, targets shellfish for export, and uses low-impact fishing methods. We wanted to give these small-scale low-impact fishing communities a chance to tell decision makers what they think, about Brexit and the future of UK fisheries.

Our work took us away from the largest ports with the loudest voices, to fishing communities in the Isle of Skye and Orkney in Scotland, Pembrokeshire in Wales, and along the English Channel (Plymouth, Poole, Mudeford and Gosport). Many of these small coastal communities are reliant on fishing jobs for year-round employment.

What did we hear?

The fishers we spoke to did not feel represented by the large lobbying organisations for the fishing industry, but many were members of associations for small-scale fishers. They did not feel the debate so far reflected the complexities of the industry and were worried that any mention of fisheries in the discussions around Brexit was just to pay lip service. They felt they had been ignored many times before. 

Many people were worried about the future of the industry. Despite the fact that revenues and profits are growing in the fishing industry as a whole, that certainly wasn’t the perception in these communities.

Many fishers were keen to highlight how they fish, with a focus on their low impact on marine life and habitats as well as the juveniles of the stocks they target. They can demonstrate they are sustainable and in particular that the static’ fishing methods used by these vessels is the least damaging to the wider marine ecosystem.

Lobster fishing boat in Milford Haven
Image: David Merrett (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

What needs to change?

With such varied case studies and voices, some of the policy needs are specific to certain areas. This stands out more than any other finding – that while many fish stocks will need to be managed at a European level so the stock is protected, how this looks at a local level can vary significantly, especially for less mobile shellfish. Really taking control of fisheries management means co-management where the fishery is run by and for local stakeholders, giving all of them a chance to shape decision-making.

The question over who gets to fish is always a hot topic in fisheries policy. A finite amount of fishing pressure needs to be fairly distributed, otherwise, with unlimited fishing pressure, stocks collapse. This is a conflict in the Brexit negotiations, where everyone wants access to productive fishing grounds.

From our research, we know that 80% of the fishing fleet supports half of the industry’s jobs, but have access to only 1.5% of the fishing quota. This 80% is almost entirely made up of small-scale, inshore fishers who have to compete with larger boats, and often fish non-quota species for export to the EU.

Many fishers we spoke to felt that fishing quota limits are held in too few hands and that inshore waters should be reserved for the small-scale, low impact fleet. In addition, if fishing quota were available for a wider group of fishers, then catches could diversify, allowing fishers to be more environmentally sustainable by taking pressure off some stocks and creating new economic benefits for their coastal communities. How fishing opportunities are distributed within the UK was always a national decision, even before the Brexit vote, and a change in the distribution of fishing opportunities is an absolute must for future fisheries legislation.

Fishing boats in Stromness Marina
Image: Alan Jamieson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As the majority of fish caught in the UK is exported (and the majority we consume is imported) the future of fisheries trade was identified as a significant risk. A good deal for these fishing communities means that tariff, but also non-tariff barriers, are kept to a minimum as a live, perishable product needs to be delivered to consumers quickly. Keeping or otherwise seeking to replicate existing trade deals outside of the EU are also key for some products, particularly whelks exported to Korea, which the inshore fleet in England has become heavily reliant on.

Remoteness’ and complexity’ are realities that modern politics avoids like scurvy, but they cannot be ignored. Our hope is that this video can focus attention and debate to secure a fair and sustainable fishing industry for the benefit of all fishing communities.

Download the briefing

If you value great public services, protecting the planet and reducing inequality, please support NEF today.

Make a one-off donation

£5 £10 £25 £50 £100

Make a monthly donation

£3 £5 £10 £25 £100