Mike Cohen – NFFO Chairman - Personal remarks to the NFFO AGM, held this year in London in Fishmongers Hall

14th June 2018 in Executive, NFFO

In just a few minutes I cease not only to be the Chairman of the NFFO, but also - for the time being, at least - to have any regular involvement with the fishing industry. Life takes us, sometimes, in unexpected directions and mine is leading me - for now - away from an industry that I have lived and breathed around the clock - just like everyone else here - for the last 7 years.

Mike Cohen – NFFO Chairman - Personal remarks to the NFFO AGM, held this year in London in Fishmongers Hall

As unwelcome as this is for me, it does have some advantages. Not least, the opportunity to speak to you all today with a certain freedom. The proper version of the Chairman's speech is in your meeting packs and, having been written by Barrie, is more comprehensive, more coherent and more cogent than anything that I could produce.

That is the real message and I agree with every word of it. I can devise no better summary of the state of the fishing industry and the NFFO's achievements, than that.

So instead I am going to indulge myself in some valedictory remarks that are entirely personal. What follows is from me and me alone: uncensored and, indeed, unchecked by anyone. It is, after all, far too late to sack me.

And so, as Barrie contemplates with mounting horror the prospect of a Chairman gone rogue, with nothing to lose, I leave you with the following:

We stand at a crossroads.

This is the sort of thing that you are supposed to say to kick off a Chairman's speech. It has the right sort of ring about it. A certain gravitas. I said it last year and it will do just as well today. Partly because I am a lazy and couldn't think of a less trite opening line, but partly because it is still true.

Perhaps this is because we do not appear to have gone anywhere in the intervening time. There is, to be sure, no more certainty about where the future management of our fisheries will leave our industry than there was then, or indeed than when I first took the Chair two years ago.

OR perhaps we still stand at that crossroads because that is where we always stand.

Life is change. There will always be another crisis. Always another opportunity. Someone else will always be wanting to stake a claim to the seas: MCZs, gas rigs, gravel dredging, wind farms. And there will always be an chance to argue for better access, more catching opportunities, less bureaucracy.

If we perennially stand at a crossroads, then - if you will permit me to torture the metaphor a little further - we had better stand together.

I could reach for the cliche again and say that now, more than ever, we need unity. I won't say that, because that's not true.

The truth is that fishing industry must ALWAYS stand together. Let me explain why. In a 24 hour, 365 day business like ours, it is very easy to develop the sort of monomaniacal focus that blinds us to what is happening in the real world.

The real world is not the front page of the Daily Express nor the aggressive and paranoid echo chamber of a Facebook page. The real world is a country of 70 million people, the great majority of whom are facing economic turmoil and uncertainty of their own.

Last year, the British fishing industry could boast total landings valued at around £996m.

£996 million. Just think of that.

It’s almost as much as the export value of farm tractors.

Or sales of Peppa Pig merchandise.

It's almost equivalent to half of Tesco's last profit statement.

At the last census, 11,618 people described their occupation as being in fishing or aqauculture.

11,618 people. In a working population of 32 million.

There were 14,000 refrigeration engineers. 65,000 sewing machinists. There were over 50% more commercial pilots than commercial fishermen.

Fishing accounts for less than one twentieth of one percent of Britain's GDP. We are a rounding error.

THIS, more than any one transitory event, however important it may seem at the time, is why the fishing industry NEEDS unity and NEEDS the NFFO.

Because there are many very good reasons to support the British fishing industry.

In a western world dominated by the service sector, fishing still involves producing something physical and real.

Fishing can provide sustainable and healthy food to a nation increasingly facing a health crisis caused by bad diet

It provides income and an escape from the hopelessness of unemployment and poverty in communities that are on the margins of modern Britain in every sense and which have been comprehensively abandoned by self-absorbed politicians of every stripe.

It provides continuity with the past and identity with that best part of our national spirit, the part that is about fortitude, self-reliance and a spirit of enterprise and adventure.

Contributions to GDP are nothing compared to all of that.

But we can only lay claim to public sympathy and acknowledgment of this if we stand together.

No aspect of the fishing industry can call on that support alone. The inshore under 10s can't claim to provide the amounts of food that the nation needs, or to fish stocks that are unambiguously strong and sustainable. The offshore fleets can, perhaps, but with their foreign investors and overseas crews can't convincingly pretend to be representing the heritage of disadvantaged fishing communities.

The point is that they don't have to. Together and seen properly as parts of a whole, these disparate groups ARE the fishing industry that IS all of the things I discussed a moment ago.

I genuinely believe that the NFFO, more than any other group, has the best chance of achieving that essential unity.

I am firmly convinced that the NFFO's approach: less showy than some, but more influential than any, is the best way that it can serve its members. The NFFO works through patient advocacy and eloquent diplomacy. Never opposing without proposing a well-reasoned alternative.

Tempting though it is, to indulge an appetite for spectacle, we must always ask ourselves "how does this help"? Criticising from a distance and screeching 'betrayal' at every suggestion that is made might advance political profiles but it does not improve the lot of even a single British fisherman one iota.

Everything that I have seen during my time with the NFFO has convinced me that it always strives to act genuinely with the best interests of ALL its members firmly in sight. The fishing industry is fortunate indeed to have such able people willing to dedicate their time to make the NFFO what it is and particularly to have Barrie, who leads with such skill and subtlety and who understands supremely well that the true measure of success lies in the results we achieve, not in the credit we take.

One of the great frustrations of my time in the fishing industry has been the continual sight of people jockeying for position, willing to throw one another over the side in order to secure transitory personal advantage. And it is all very well for wiser and more experienced voices than mine to tell me that this is just the way it has always been. But right now we - you - do not have the luxury of that self-indulgent cynicism.

If we do not unite, we will be led down a path from our present crossroads that is not of our choosing. And we will not get to go back and try again.

Britain has something remarkable in its fishing industry and the fishing industry has something remarkable in the NFFO and the people who drive it.

We must believe this if we are going to act on it. Together.

Now you may not agree with the things I've said today. You may not like them. But please do at least think about them. To quote George Bernard Shaw: "Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything".

Don't let your assumptions and your past limit your actions and your cooperation for the future.

Thank you all and - at least for now - goodbye.