A Register of Quota Holdings - Now an Imperative

2nd July 2012 in Domestic Fisheries Policy, TACs and Quotas

The requirement for a register of quota holdings (FQAs*) in the UK has now become an absolute imperative, if only to quell the waves of almost hysterical speculation in the press and Parliament.

The absence of a register of quota holdings is allowing bizarre speculation to run riot and to feed lazy journalists and those prone to conspiracy theories, in their unhealthy pursuits.

Manchester United, ‘quota barons’, Terry Wogan and who knows who else, have been implicated in what one overexcited legal commentator described as the ‘biggest property grab since the Norman Conquest’. This level of distortion and misrepresentation can only exist if there is no way of providing a definitive answer to the question, ‘So who does own UK fishing quotas?’

It is pretty certain that the truth about the pattern of quota ownership in the UK is going to be quite a bit less exciting that the press speculation has suggested.

It is doubtful whether there will be many surprises when full transparency is brought to bear on FQA holdings. For the most part, the individuals and groups which hold quota are likely to be the individuals and groups whose vessels fish those quotas – and whose allocations are mainly based on historical rights. Quota trading (in the form of sale of FQAs ) has in the UK become an important means of bringing quota to where it is required but the amount of quota trading is still likely to be at the margin – well under 10% annually is our best guess.

It is also worth bearing in mind that, with few exceptions, quota in the UK is managed through formally recognised producer organisations (which are owned and controlled by fishermen and vessel operators), or through government set limits, in line with pre-agreed rules.

But until the FQA register is published, there is nothing to stop even wilder speculation. Greenpeace, the Sultan of Brunei, Tesco, David Beckham – why not?

Once we have a register we can have a calm consideration, as part of a proper review of the quota management system, of what safeguards against over-concentration might be appropriate and how to balance quota security with flexibility to trade.

The dangers in this debate tend to lie at the extremes – with those (like the European Commission) who see quota trading as a panacea for fleet overcapacity, or those at the other end of the spectrum, who believe that trade in quota in any circumstances will lead directly to monopoly by outside interests.

The evolution of system of transferable and tradable quotas, linked to a system of devolved responsibility to producer organisations, from a more rigid system of centralised control, has in fact, brought undoubted advantages to the UK, for example in the ability to plan the fishing year and bringing quota to where it is needed. At the same time, a pool system of monthly allocations carries other advantages, notably the ability to change target species with relative ease. It is no accident therefore that some POs mix annual vessel allocations based on FQAs for some species with a pool system for others; and that the Government’s consultation last summer revealed that most under-10m fishermen are wedded to the flexibility that a pool system provides. All this suggests that the best quota system is one which provides maximum flexibility for regional and sectoral variation, within a framework of well thought through safeguards.

Perhaps this is all too complex for papers like the Sunday Times to grasp. It is journalists’ job to dramatise and simplify but when reporting and comment slips into a world of black and white and pantomime villains it is time for the industry itself to call for a halt,

A quota register is unlikely to completely end this type of misrepresentation but it would remove some of the scope for wilder, evidence free, assertions being made.

*Fixed Quota Allocation – an entitlement to a share of UK quota of a given species in a given area