An industry united in opinion?

Posted on 19/05/16 by David Stevens

Cornish fisherman Dave Stevens explains why he thinks the British Fishing Industry is better off out of the EU

Right across our country many people have already made their minds up of how they will vote in the upcoming EU referendum.

However, a large proportion of the population have yet to make up their minds, and it's very easy to understand why so many are undecided.

The 'don't know' camp consists of many people from all walks of life who work in all areas of our economy. They have to listen to the many contradictory arguments put forward by either campaign leaving many people wondering- “where is an example of what being exclusively run by the European Union looks like?"

But there is an industry that, for the past 30 years, has been entirely governed by the EU which decides its laws on exactly how it is to be managed and determines exactly what each country can do.

This is our industry, the great British fishing industry.

I still say the 'great' British fishing industry as that is what it is to we British fisherman.

We are a diverse, determined and pioneering group of mainly family-based businesses who venture out to the seas around our coastline to bring home our catches of the freshest, tastiest fish in the world.

We are fortunate that, with the UK being an island nation, we have access to some of the most productive fishing grounds in the world - the waters around the UK are the largest and most productive waters within the EU.

However, these are NOT British waters and British fisherman DO NOT even make up the majority of the fisherman as, due to EU membership, they are now EU waters.

You may well ask how has this situation come about? For the UK to gain access to what was the common market (E.E.C.) we surrendered control of our waters and fisheries to the EU - British waters became 'common' European Union waters with common rights under the principle of equal access to a common resource.

Enshrined in what became the first CFP (Common Fisheries Policy) was the setting of access levels - countries had to sacrifice national ownership of their territorial waters which then became EU waters.

These levels of access were laid down in treaties under the terms of relative stability shares for EU Members States — this outlines what share of the Quota for fish stocks individual members of the EU have in EU (previously British) waters.

Britain, with the largest and most productive waters, therefore had to sacrifice the most to accommodate other European fishing fleets.

The CFP is the overarching policy for all fishing activity from capture to subsequent sale, and this policy is directly responsible for the success or failure of a fishery.

A Taste of Reality

For all of my 26 years in fishing I have had to work under the rules set out within the CFP and I can only give you a glimpse into the world of trying to manage our family fishing business in the backdrop of the madness that is the CFP.

We work our vessel, Crystal Sea, out of Newlyn in Cornwall, like most fishing communities this port has seen a huge decline in its fleet over the last few decades we have been under full EU control. This decline is attributed and justified by the EU Fisheries Commission as being due to “overfishing".

However this decline came about as a result of the EU giving all other EU fleets access to British waters and paying grants to these countries to build boats for this to happen right through the 1970's and 80's.

Due to this the EU increased the fishing 'effort' taking place in British waters dramatically until, in the 1990's when they realized this was causing huge problems to the stocks, they determined to lower effort by reducing the size of the fleet.

However, in doing this, they attempted to reduce the number of boats under the rules of 'relative stability' share-outs and, for the UK, this meant that our fleet decreased by the largest percentage as we were the ones who had to lose the most to accommodate this extra EU capacity.

On our vessel, we fish the western approaches to the English Channel and this area is under EU law managed as Area VII and it includes the Irish, Celtic seas and the English Channel.

Taken in isolation, this is a very large area and the UK has well over 60% of the original territorial waters within it.

However, with CFP relative stability shares applying within the EU, the UK only has access to 20% of the available fishing rights in these previously British waters, yet the French have just under 60% of the shares of the catches within these waters.

So, in my time as a fisherman, I have seen the UK fleets shrink to match this very small share we receive of our 'own' fish.

As a fisherman I work alongside mainly French, Irish, Belgium and Spanish fisherman, and it far less common for me to see my own countryman fishing alongside.

I mainly work between six to 100 miles off our coastline — well within what would have once been the UK 200 nautical mile territorial limits – and yet today it is full of other countries' boats but not our own.

With the UK's small Quotas under relative stability share of the fishery it makes it very difficult to sustain all of the traditional fishing communities around our coastline.

Because of this, many traditional fishing communities have completely lost their fishing industry as they now have no quota to catch any fish.

This has had huge knock on effects on the local economy and infrastructure but it has also meant the loss of meaning and heritage to the community. It also impacts tourism as who wants to see empty or derelict harbours?

Along with the already small quota shares we have to fish with, we also have historical anomalies which cause problems — one of these is our huge haddock stock in Area VII, which is to be found exclusively in UK waters.

We only started seeing haddock in our catches in greater numbers in the last 15 years due to the increasing stock.

However, the relative stability quota shares for this species dates back to the 1970's and 80's and, as a result, Britain has a tiny share for haddock. The UK has access to 9% of the TAC (total allowable catch) while France has over 60%, with the rest divided up amongst the other Member States.

As you can imagine, trying to balance our catches when we have so little quota for such an abundant species is impossible. This lack of quota for British fishermen, in what should be UK waters, has created the total waste many people have seen on TV documentaries of discards of perfectly good fish because of a lack of quota.

For many years fisherman have been blamed for the terrible, wasteful discarding but few realise that this problem was entirely caused by the lack of quota for British fishermen as well as the EU Commission's total lack of understanding of how mixed demersal fisheries operate.

British fishermen are widely known in the world and across the EU as the most proactive and conservation-minded fisherman and often lead the way within the EU on how to tackle the issues of our time, through technical and practical conservation practices.

Yet, because of politics, we are forced into the crazy situation of having to discard marketable fish due to lack of quota in our own waters whilst other countries continue to fish.

The sad fact is the wasteful practice of discards is a direct creation of the EU due to the laws they enforce upon fisherman without they themselves as industry regulators ever taking responsibility.

Lunatics Running the Asylum

As vessel owners and fishermen, we have first-hand experience of other crazy EU rules. We, as a business venture, with the help of the Marine Management Organization (the MMO – the UK's arm of EU enforcement for fisheries.) monitored our catches and came up with some very good techniques of eliminating juvenile fish (the lifeblood of any fishery).

Over the course of a year we recorded every trip we undertook at sea and measured the differences we made.

We reduced our unwanted catch by 90% by making the meshes in our cod end larger allowing juvenile fish to escape. However, even with doing this in a documented manner, this increased mesh size method used still fell outside of EU laws and was classed as illegal- Even after proving new measures to be effective!

The EU also did away with the ability of the UK industry to use trial monitoring methods that proved so useful in the trials and which were seen by many as a ground-breaking way of conducting fisheries science which the UK led the way on.

Therefore with this as the backdrop of our working way of life – and this is true of what all other British fisherman face day in day out – this unfair and nonsensical way of running fisheries is encouraging people to believe that, in a united industry “we could do a better job of managing this industry on our own…"

Where we have argument and counter argument on the many big issues, I urge anyone, especially those of you who are undecided, to take a look at the disastrous management of our industry.

We are unique as we are one of the few industries completely run by the EU from the CFPs foundations to the day-to-day laws. When discussions on fishing are held with other States outside of the EU, like Iceland or Norway, the UK fisheries minister has no seat at the table — even though, more often than not, 60% of the waters up for discussion would belong to the UK.

Horse Trading

Just recently the EU has given away 50% of our pelagic stocks to Iceland, Faroes and Norway and given them full access to fish in our waters.

All of this seems to be have been done for what they consider a 'greater cause in facilitating an increase in EU membership and trade', but has had nothing to do with sustainability.

When the EU decided to put a TAC (Quota) on deep-water species — something British fishermen had fished for in our waters for years — instead of sharing this TAC out equally, it was France (co-incidentally who had the EU Presidency at the time) who were awarded most of this TAC.

Resultantly our deep-water fleet was forced out and now we must stand by and watch French boats land this valuable catch into our ports and profit from this whilst British fishermen and communities cannot.

For our industry, the arguments to leave the EU are very clear cut — not merely from a financial point of view, but because of something which is deep rooted in British citizens- the ideas of fairness, common sense and democracy.

We can clearly see that when you are trying to manage something and keep all parties happy but at the same time have your eye on something you think is a bigger prize, you lose sight of what you are trying to achieve.

For me personally, I see this as the main problem of the EU – it has lost sight of what it needs to be and we as an industry see this clearly. It would appear to be obvious that a Vote to Leave will give us the opportunity to make a better job of the management, not just of our industry, but I am sure for all of the other parts of Britain as well.

The UK has always led the way in the world on so many issues and still can, we just need to have more freedom to do this.

I even think that if the UK were to Vote to Leave this would be a good thing for the EU itself as it would have to consider and question the reasons why we chose to do this.

We, the United Kingdom, would in fact be leading the way forward, by example of democracy, for the EU and I know from speaking to many of our EU counterparts that there is huge support for the British to take this lead especially from the Danes, Dutch and the Germans.

So we must take a step into something we are still very familiar with, the sunlit uplands of common sense, fairness and democracy, and Vote to Leave for all these reasons greater than ourselves.