Sunday 21 April 2019


I love the challenge of cryptic crosswords and in recent months I've been cutting my teeth on the self-declared 'fiendish fun' of Alamet's crossword on Saturdays in the Morning Star. Try yesterday's puzzle: 2 Down - Living near the surface of quiet glacier moving endlessly (7). 'Quiet' will be 'p' - that's easy. It took a while to realise that it was the letters of 'glacie' without the 'r' on the end that were needed for rearranging ('moving') to make 'pelagic', defined as 'inhabiting the upper layers of the open sea (chiefly of fish)', often contrasted with 'demersal', defined as living close to the floor of the sea or lake.

From the pelagic to the bottom of the boat

All of which brings us to my focus: fishy matters. Some weeks ago, I published a London Marathon training blog-post that featured graffiti on a huge fish shed in Newlyn that I noted as I ran. Here's a link to remind you or bring you to the story for the first time - press here. The graffiti had been removed the next time I ran past but the grievance against the Newlyn big-wig fishermen would not have been erased so easily. I assume this so-called 'mindless act of vandalism' was a protest by a

handful of small-scale fishermen directed at those in the local fishing industry who were controlling their operations and income. Of course, I don't know - and in the absence of investigative journalism or local knowledge, I remain in ignorance.

I was reminded of that episode in my running preparations for the London Marathon in a week's time when  a new Facebook contact - Fred Greaves - sent me a link to a post he had just discovered which told the story of how a small group of millionaire families control huge swathes of the country's fishing quota. Fred had re-joined the Labour Party, as I did, at the time of Jeremy Corbyn's election as leader. We share socialist values - and he's just bought a copy of my prophetic book: 'The Road to Corbyn'.

Available online using this link - press here.

Here's the story that the organisation 'UNEARTHED', the journalistic arm of Greenpeace - see the link by pressing here -  has uncovered after a five-month long investigation into 95% of UK fishing quota holdings, including for the first time Scotland, the UK's biggest fishing nation. Let's declare our interest although it's pretty obvious already: we're on the side of the little guys, the small-scale fishers who have long hoped for a greater share of that UK fishing quota. The quality of the lives of the many are diminished when the few develop a monopoly that concentrates wealth in their own pockets.

  • More than a quarter of the UK's fishing quota is in the hands of a tiny group of the country's wealthiest families.
  • Just five families - all of whom are on the Sunday Times Rich List - hold or control 29% of the UK's fishing quota.
  • Just 25 businesses control more than two-thirds of that fishing quota - and more than half of those are linked to one of the biggest criminal overfishing scams ever to reach the British courts (more on that later). 
  • In England, nearly 80% of fishing quota is held either by foreign owners or domestic Rich List families. 
  • In Northern Ireland, more than half of the quota is hoarded onto a single trawler. 
  • These revelations come as the UK government declares that the new fisheries bill which sets the foundations of the UK fishing industry, post-Brexit, will not see any redistribution of existing quota rights - the bulk of our national fisheries will remain in the hands of a small domestic elite and a handful of foreign multinationals. 

Trawling has become more sophisticated and technical

Labour's shadow environment secretary, Sue Hayman, has responded by urging the government to redistribute the fishing quota to deliver a fairer deal for smaller boats. In her words, 'This government is to blame for a sector rigged in the interests of the super-rich'. 

East coast fishing industry - another era, long gone

The UNEARTHED investigation found: 
  • The five largest quota-holders hold more than a third of UK fishing quota.
  • Four of the top five belong to families on the Sunday Times Rich List.
  • The fifth is a Dutch multinational whose UK subsidiary - North Atlantic Fishing Company - controls around a quarter of the UK fishing quota.
  • Around half of the UK's fishing quota is ultimately owned by Dutch, Icelandic or Spanish interests. 
  • More than half (13) of the top 25 quota holders have directors, shareholders, or vessel partners who were convicted of offences in Scotland's £63 million "blackfish" scam - a huge, sophisticated fraud that saw trawlermen and fish processors working together to evade quota limits and land 170,000 tonnes of undeclared herring and mackerel. 
  • One of the flagships of the "Brexit flotilla" which sailed up the Thames in 2016 to demand the UK's exit from the EU is among the UK's 10 biggest quota holders. 
  • Around 29% of UK fishing quota is directly controlled by Rich List families. Some of these families have investments in dozens of other fishing companies, meaning companies holding 37% pf UK quota are wholly or partly owned by these Rich List families.   

A reminder of the realities of a life at sea

What does a spokesperson for the fishing big-wigs have to say? Here's John Anderson, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Organisation (SFO) - a huge fish product group with several of the top 25 in its membership: 

"Whilst it is true that there has been considerable consolidation within the pelagic catching sector over the past 20 years, with a trend towards fewer, more efficient vessels each with a greater concentration of fishing opportunity, the economic reality is that small-scale, inshore fishermen, many of whom are also members of the SFO, do not have the necessary capacity or markets needed to fully utilise the pelagic quotas that are already available to them."

And here's a summary of the response from Jerry Percy, director of the New Under Ten Fishermen's Association that campaigns on behalf of fishermen with smaller, under 10m long vessels:

"Successive governments have mismanaged fishing rights, allowing quota to be consolidated on a handful of supertrawlers while smaller, low impact fishermen have been progressively starved of access …. smaller inshore vessels that make up 77% of the fleet have ended up with less than 4% of the quota …. This is privatisation of a public resource …. If you go back years ago, there was any number of smaller inshore boats that were reliant on mackerel and especially  in the North Sea before the inshore herring fisheries were decimated by overfishing by larger-scale interest."

Which way do you feel inclined to favour?

Fishing fleet - some years past

As you reflect, consider these words from Nick Underdown, of the Scottish campaign group Open Seas. He acknowledged that it was hard for smaller boats to take up mackerel quota without investment in onshore facilities to support them. "At the moment, the supply chain infrastructure favours bigger boats. But if we invest in processing with the strategic intention to help the smaller-scale fleet, then inshore fishery could bounce back. That would be a lifeline for those harbours whose fishing has declined due to consolidation."

My way of evaluating these matters was shaped a long time ago. I still have a copy on my bookshelves of the German-born, British economist, E.F. Schumacher's wonderful best-seller: 'Small is Beautiful - A Study of Economics As If People Mattered' (1973). Time for us all to read, or reread, such prescient thinking.  

Fish from the pelagic zone - part of our national psyche


1 comment:

  1. I am deeply shocked by this reality.. and horrified to think that when I eat fish and chips I am not supporting my local self employed fisherman .. they like all people matter.