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Seafood and the UK Fishing Industry
“The UK public are being misinformed - by certain core national media organisations, under the influence of green politics, and by some seafood retailers who want consumers to think that fishermen control the price of fish. Nothing could be further from the truth...” – Cormac Burke, Editor of the weekly commercial fishing industry newspaper Fishing News, and editor of the monthly global industry paper Fishing News International.
Following a recent Fiver Feeds’ article which, it transpired, was incorrect in its advice people to eat only certain types of fish in a bid to protect stocks of the more common species, we invited the IntraFish Publications Editor of the London-based, 101-year-old Fishing News and also editor of the 52-year-old Fishing News International industry newspapers, Cormac Burke, to attempt to explain the current state of the industry and what consumers should be aware of.
From its once free-for-all existence of simply going out to catch fish to meet the demands of consumers, the UK fishing industry has become one of the most complex and most regulated sectors of modern day commercial life. Given its complex history and present state, it is difficult to summarise it in one short article – however, I will do my best:
Layer upon layer of European Union (EU) regulations are handed down to each EU Member State in increasing amounts every year, which each country’s marine authorities have little choice but to enforce – even though these authorities themselves often recognise the unworkable nature of the legislation.
A brief example goes back to the days of the EU’s forerunner, the E.E.C., when TACs (total allowable catches) or ‘quotas’ were introduced. Although not all fishermen were happy about this, it was widely accepted that the industry needed some form of control so that the abundant species could be targeted and the less abundant ones could be protected i.e. in principle it was a logical step.
But once the quota system was installed, within a very short number of years it became apparent that the EU Fisheries Commission’s singular aim was purely to see a decrease in ALL quotas and amounts of fish caught.
The first step was to further complicate a quota system by adding on a regulation that not only could fishing vessels only catch ‘x’ amount of tonnes of fish per month, but a rule of ‘days at sea’ was introduced to govern the numbers of days allocated for boats to go and catch their quota. This was further complicated by interweaving these rules with the engine power (kW) of the vessels involved to govern these allowances, but I won’t go down that road as it would take us into the realms of mathematical genius to comprehend it all.
In arriving at what is deemed ‘a fair’ but sustainable quota for different species every year, the EU fisheries administrators commissions the assistance of the highly regarded International Congress for Exploration of the Seas (ICES) and, based on their scientific feedback, decide whether quotas should be raised or lowered – again another logical process, in principle.
The fact is however, that the EU Commission largely use any crumb of ICES’ negative reports on a particular species from which to base a decision for a cut in that quota, but if ICES produce a positive report on a certain species, then the EU Commission chooses to generally ignore that.
This is obviously cause for great frustration among fishing industry representatives and, on the occasion that such groups can prove, using scientific data as well as voluntary steps taken by fishermen such as using larger mesh nets to allow juvenile fish escape, the Commission can take up to three years to finally allow a four or five percent increase – meanwhile they can decide on a 30% quota decrease within 24 hours.
Then came a major problem - a bastard child of the combination a quota system and of EU administers not understanding how different types of fishing works.
Whitefish (or as known in the U.S. as ‘groundfish’) is caught by vessels towing or trawling a net on, or just slightly above, the seabed. This ‘mixed’ (demersal) fishing catches a wide range of potential seafood from cod, haddock, all types of skate, ray, flatfish, prawns etc.
But species such as mackerel and herring are generally caught by vessels that trawl their nets at different levels in the sea columns and they target one particular species and are geared to catch only that species – this is known as ‘pelagic’ fishing.
And so, to try to simplify this: if a pelagic boat has a quota of say 100 tonnes of mackerel, he goes out and fishes until he catches his quota for that period – and if he continues to fish on and exceeds his allowance he faces prosecution in one form or another.
But for the skipper with the net that is fishing the seabed for whitefish species, he has to contend with different quotas for different species – but he can’t exactly put a sign on his net saying ‘no haddock today please – I’ve already caught my quota’. This can result in him filling a small allocation quota for one species while he might still have 90% of a quota for another species still to catch. Therefore trying to force fishermen to adhere to a rigid quota system was proving impossible.
This confusing situation was further compounded when the EU, under the now infamous failed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) insisted that if fishermen inadvertently caught over-quota species, then they would be breaking the law if they brought them ashore and landed them – meaning that fishermen, for the past ten years, have complained bitterly to anyone who would listen that being forced to dump perfectly good fish back into the sea, dead, was neither a sustainable or commonsense way of managing the fishing industry.
It was only in the past two years when green groups began to highlight this ‘discards’ problem that politicians, both nationally and EU-wide, began to sit up and take notice – leading to a very public promise that a solution would be found.
That ‘solution’ (and I use the word very loosely and with much cynicism), due to come into force on January 1st 2016, is that no more fish will be discarded... But, in typical EU farcical manner, is to be replaced with a regulation that fishermen must keep the over-quota accidentally caught fish on his boat, bring it ashore, where it is neither allowed be sold or given for any form of human consumption (i.e. to go into a landfill) – again neither solving the issue of conservation of stocks nor the economic futility of the system.
This also begs the question of why the green groups and celebrity chiefs that so strongly fought against the ‘discard at sea’ issue, seem now quite happy that the same dead fish will now be discarded on land instead i.e. and still providing no form of conservation of these species?
All of this barely scratches the surface of red tape and logistical chaos (a raft of legislation too lengthy to go into in this article) that has left the modern day fisherman dealing with so many items of paperwork and log sheets for every trip that it has become a challenge to even leave harbour without breaking some law or other
Sustainability – lip service versus reality
The UK fishing industry is not really ‘an industry’ in the true commercial sense of the word but is more akin to a conglomeration of many different sectors who work in different types of fishing methods, targeting different types of species – each one trying to fight for its own survival.
However, despite the finger often being pointed to the large trawlers seen throughout the UK, it is a fact that in excess of 73% of fishermen work in the ‘inshore sector’ i.e. the small lobster and crab potters and scallop dredgers and netter boats that make many of our ports look so picturesque.
This figure of over 70% inshore sector is actually an EU-wide figure, with local community-base artisanal fisheries everywhere the lifeblood for many rural coastal communities.
While many green groups, some well meaning and others not so much, believe that doing away with larger trawlers to protect the long term future of small boats, the fact remains that this is simply not feasible.
Yes it is true that the inshore fishermen do not have the amount of quota they need to remain viable, but as a nation, the UK cannot survive without the thousands of tonnes of fish caught by the very important trawlers from whose catches feed 80% of the nation’s fish demands.
Meanwhile the industry must contend with anti industry propaganda which, if not poorly researched, is often downright misinformation. The best example of this being a well-known UK Sunday newspaper headline with the startling claim “ONLY 100 COD LEFT IN THE NORTH SEA” – a story which, after renowned marine scientists stated the biomass of North Sea cod was actually in the region of 2.8 million tonnes, was voted by the BBC as ‘the most misleading headline of the year’.
Many of these green groups like to declare to the public (in a ‘shock, horror’ manner) that the fishing industry is not only destroying all the stocks of fish, but are also being subsidised by the EU to do so.
The ‘subsidy’ they refer to is that the tax on marine related diesel is slightly less than the going rate – but to claim this is a subsidy is like saying that drivers are being subsidised because the Government builds motorways or upkeeps existing roads – which is obviously not the case as drivers pay road taxes to enjoy the good roads – and fishermen pay plenty in taxes, tariffs and a million other forms of stealth taxation
So what do we eat?
In our modern, sustainability-conscious way of life everyone now likes to feel that they are ‘doing their bit’ for the earth, the protection of vulnerable fish and animals, the forests, cleanliness of the oceans etc.
But in attempting to keep aware of what’s right to eat and what’s not, we have ourselves have become vulnerable to the influences of our multi million pound super stores who foist various seafood products upon us, in the name of “this product comes from sustainable source, so it’s ok”.
But look a little closer at the labels of those products that you are buying in any of our major shops – ‘delicious shrimps’ (small print... farmed in Thailand); ‘oak smoked salmon’ (small print.... imported from Norway); ‘whitefish fillets in breadcrumbs’ (small print... whitefish is pollack imported from Alaska); ‘whitefish in white wine sauce’ (small print... whitefish is pangasius farmed in Vietnam), and so on.
If UK consumers want advice on what to eat, then look no further than that old (and rarely seen since we joined the EU) phrase of ‘BUY BRITISH’— almost all species of fish caught in UK waters are strongly regulated by the EU and therefore considered caught in a sustainable manner. If it was in any way seen to be unsustainable, then the EU Commission would have slashed its quota a long time ago (as they regularly do for any species that they are concerned about).
You are NOT killing the last fish in the sea if you buy a cod caught in Peterhead or a whiting caught down south – but for God’s sake, support your national fishermen and not some fish farmer in Vietnam who is supplying a fish reared on soya and has zero nutritional value.
The drive to force the public into buying certain types of species from different origins sees such anomalies as UK markets praising their cod imported from Norway, because it “comes from a sustainable source”, but at the same time telling consumers not to buy UK cod as it is “unsustainable and damaging to the stock” – even though in both cases, the cod has been caught in or around the same North Sea waters...
Finally, to put another myth to rest, when you baulk at the price of the fish you buy in a restaurant, or in your supermarket, or even at your local fish and chip shop, know one thing – the fishermen who caught that fish, working in what is officially declared the most dangerous occupation in the world, got paid approximately one third of what you are paying (and that’s on a good day).
Unlike almost all other national food supplying industries, fishermen cannot now, nor have they even been able to, pass on the rising costs of their overheads on to the buyers of their produce. They bring their fish to the market (auction) and they get what they get – depending on the current situation for the fish buyers and how strong a demand they have at any given time.
This age-old fact means that fishermen never know from one week to the next how much their earnings will be, they can‘t get a pension, they can’t sign for any benefits because they are out at sea trying to catch fish (even though they may not catch enough to make a wage), and they are not entitled to any medical care benefits.
Never have so many worked so hard for so little reward or appreciation...
About the author
Cormac Burke comes from the fishing port of Killybegs in Donegal on the northwest coast of Ireland.
A fishermen for over 16 years, he has fished on many varying sizes of vessels and many different types of fisheries from pot fishing for lobsters to large pelagic vessels hunting for shoals of mackerel and herring in Ireland, the UK and Norway.
Following a serious back injury in 1995 he went into journalism and, after a few years as a staff writer for the Irish fishing paper Irish Skipper, became its editor and remained there until 1998 when he moved to the UK and took on the challenging task of editor for both Fishing News and Fishing News International, the latter which has resulted in him travelling to see, and report on, the fishing industry in over forty countries worldwide.
He is well known in EU fisheries circles in Brussels, both as his role as a fisheries paper editor and also as an industry commentator in the popular IntraFish.com news website