Small Scale Fisheries – thinking through the issues

7th February 2011 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

Commissioner Damanaki’s (if not necessarily DG Mare’s) enthusiasm for special treatment for small scale fisheries is well known.

NGOs like Ocean 12 and the International Federation of Fishworkers, and also some within the UK fishing industry, are also keen to draw a firm line between, on the one hand, small-scale artisanal fisheries and on the other large scale “industrial” fleets. The argument is made that the former are good from a number of perspectives and should be ring-fenced and afforded special advantages within the reformed CFP. The (often but not always, implicit) inference is that the larger vessels are bad, not to be trusted, too powerful, generally harmful and up to no good.

At this stage we should register an interest. The NFFO’s membership contains hundreds of small vessels. From the salmon drift net fishery in the north east to the hand-line mackerel fishery in the south west; from the beach launched vessels of the south east, to the shellfish fleets in Wales and dozens of creeks and harbours on the east coast, south coast, in the south west and Irish sea – some of the NFFO’s oldest and staunchest members operate small vessels. For those who need reminding, the NFFO played a pivotal role in overturning the proposed increase in the minimum landing size for bass that would have put many small operators out of business; and the Federation has also put forward the most progressive and coherent ideas for resolving the quota problems faced by parts of the under-10metre fleet. We have also made special efforts to include small vessels in the MPA Fishing Coalition to ensure that they have a voice in the setting up of marine conservation zones. Our annual membership subscription rate is scaled to be proportionate to vessel size and therefore earning capacity. The smallest vessel on our membership list pays £7. 26 per annum.

These examples demonstrate the NFFO’s commitment to the small-scale fleet; nevertheless, it is important not to be seduced (as the Commissioner appears to be) by an idealised, picture post-card version of the reality of our inshore fleets and by pantomime caricatures of small = good, big = bad.

It is our considered view that it is not in the long-term interests of the operators of small-scale vessels to be treated as a special, separate, category – even if the short-term these fleets receive a few sweeties in the form of preferential access to EFF grants.

These are the reasons why:

  • Small-scale fleets play a unique role in terms of providing employment, sustaining fishing communities and as an entry point into the fishing industry. However, there is a fundamental interdependence between the small-scale and large-scale fleets. Port, marketing and management infrastructures all require the continuity of supply that the larger vessels with their ability to fish in poor weather bring. Without a range of vessel sizes, all operating in their different ways, on different grounds, in many cases it is doubtful if continuity of supply could be maintained. And without continuity of supply there would be catastrophic consequences for buyers, processors – and for many in the small-scale fleet itself.
  • The fishing industry does not lend itself to a crude division and simplistic definitions that splits the fleet into two categories: inshore/ artisanal/ small-scale/ low environmental impact on the one hand; large-scale/ industrial/ offshore on the other. It is possible to find vessels that fit these categories at the extremes, but in-between it is also possible to find large vessels that fish inshore for some of the time; multiple small-scale vessels in a single ownership; and small vessels that fish 40 miles offshore at certain times of year – all examples contradicting the attempt to shoe-horn a complex reality into simplistic management categories
  • Many fishermen began their fishing careers in small boats before moving on to larger vessels. Many also wish to spend the end of their careers in small vessels. This continual interchange between the small and larger-scale sector is valuable and should not be undermined by impenetrable but essentially artificial barriers
  • The alternative approach, suggested by some, is to describe a category of small-scale, inshore vessels with very low environmental impact. It would then be for vessels to demonstrate that they meet those criteria in order to access certain kinds of preferential treatment. But this approach is not without its problems either. The critical questions here are: how is this category to be defined and what parts of the existing small-scale fleet (say under 12m or under 10m) would be eligible to join this select group; certainly some, but many of the existing fleets who doubtless consider themselves small-scale operators would not. This is a recipe for division, and arbitrary and unfair pigeon holing – in short a bureaucratic nightmare. In supporting this approach many of the existing inshore fleet would be turkeys voting for Christmas, even if it is not clear at the moment which turkey is destined for the table.
  • It is clear from statements made by the Commission that in envisaging separate arrangements for the small-scale fleets, what is not under consideration is some kind of exemption from the conservation regime. If that is the case, then it is difficult to perceive what “separate treatment” might entail beyond preferential access to grants. But even here, there are problems beyond how small scale is defined. (The current EFF definition of small scale includes vessels under 12 meters but excludes trawlers). The drive for this approach largely comes from southern member states like Italy and Greece who historically have subsidised their large inshore fleets. To what degree any current or future UK government would want to go down this road has to be a moot point.

We are clear therefore that a separatist, protectionist, welfare, approach to the inshore fleets would be both unworkable and undesirable from the point of view of small-scale operators themselves. It would pigeon hole the industry to a greater extent than it already is; and it would entail an unhealthy degree of bureaucracy and leave the small-scale sector exposed to the whim of arbitrary political decisions in the future.

So, against this background what is the NFFO’s vision for the small-scale fleets?

  • Strengthening the economic self-reliance of the small-scale fleet is the way forward. Removing the fate of the fleets as far as possible from decisions made by Government by developing self-management or co-management through their own organisations. Building the capacity within the small-scale sector to do this.
  • Acknowledging the interdependence of the whole industry and working with other sectors for the general good; finding ways to ensure that the seats that are already available within the NFFO, on the RACs and other bodies are taken up by authentic representatives of the small-scale fleets
  • Developing solutions to the quota problems that face the under 10m fleet that work for all parties along the lines proposed by the Federation, including putting in place safeguards against over- concentration of quota ownership.
  • Building a united front and making common cause on the major issues confronting the industry, not least the displacement from fishing grounds by marine conservation zones.
  • Developing a balanced policy on shellfish policy and latent capacity that take into account the views and interests of the small boat sector

In short, we think that the siren call of the separatists who want a kind of apartheid – separate development - for the small boat sector should be rejected as a half-thought-through approach, leading part of the small-scale fleet into a cul-de-sac of perpetual dependence - and the cutting the remainder loose to survive as they can.

The NFFO was founded on the principle of mutuality – fishermen providing support for those other groups of fishermen when they need it – irrespective of vessel size or where on the coast the vessel is based. It is a principle that has served us well and we will not be abandoning it just yet.