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Public Policy|Southampton

A Missed Opportunity to Reform Marine Fisheries Policy? - DEFRA consultation on post-Brexit management of quota

Professor Paul Kemp
Professor Paul Kemp

Recent consultations (10th November 2020) on DEFRAs proposals relating to the management of fishing quota in post-Brexit Britain exposes the imbalance between the politics of achieving a perceived fairer deal for the UK fishing industry and the need to manage our fisheries in a more sustainable way.

The consultations seek to obtain views on how additional quota that the UK may secure in negotiations with the EU might be more fairly shared between the four administrations of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; how the English share could be better distributed across the various sectors of the fleet to the benefit of the industry and coastal communities; and how English-licenced vessels might be better “economically linked” to coastal communities that would benefit from the landing of a greater proportion of the catch.

In what some may describe as a politically driven preoccupation with being seen to be “taking back control” and “gaining a fairer share” for the UK fishing industry, the consultations fail to tackle one particularly thorny and very important issue. That is, how to ensure the fish stocks on which many UK fishers depend are able to regenerate from their current degraded status to levels that are resilient to continued (and hopefully more sustainable) harvest and other challenges, such as climate and other environmental change (e.g. marine pollutants, plastics etc.), so that future food security and stability of the industry is enhanced.

Ultimately, fisheries represent a socio-ecological system, and the current focus is purely on one side of the coin - the socio-economic perspective.  The ecological foundations required to maintain economically sustainable fisheries must be given equal consideration; an element that is currently lacking in both the consultations and the media narrative. The problem can be illustrated by use of an analogy.

Imagine a festive scenario in which instead of sitting down to a turkey on Christmas day, we live in a culture in which the presentation to the extended family of a Fish Pie is the tradition. In addition to the childhood memories of tinsel and crackers at the festive feast, one may remember the huge Fish Pie that all members of the family, from Granny Doreen to Uncle Bob, savoured with relish before sitting down as a united group to enjoy the Queens speech. But over the years, the Christmas Fish Pie seemed to be smaller, and perhaps a little less tasty than the year before, presumably because there was less and less of the core ingredients and a great proportion of pastry, resulting a blander gastronomic experience.

The change would have been imperceptible at first, hardly anyone would notice, but as the years passed and the child grew, they would notice the increasingly unimpressed look as Granny Doreen received her share, while Uncle Bob would make some ill-advised comment relating to “how the world has changed and things are not the same as they used to be”.  This analogy is perhaps too crass, but nevertheless accurate. Consider one essential ingredient – the much beloved nations favourite, cod. In 2019 the landing of cod by British fishers in UK ports was a mere 6% by weight of that landed 50 years earlier, representing only 12% of the value (£ corrected to represent present day value). The same pattern can be seen for  the other ingredients too. Negotiation of quota with the EU simply reflects an annual fight for a greater proportion of an ever-dwindling Christmas Fish Pie, and debates over whether Granny Doreen or Uncle Bob should be allowed a bigger slice appears to miss the point.

What we should be wondering is why is the Christmas Fish Pie much smaller than it used to be?  To ask that very child-like question would be a start in a direction towards refocusing our attention, not on the size of our neighbours pies, or the size of the slices given to our relatives, but to the other side of the fisheries management coin, that is to the protection of the populations of fish that provision our food for the future. Until the UK Government starts to do this, then the aspiration to deliver “Sustainable Fisheries for Future Generations”, the title of the 2018 White Paper that outlines the bill currently progressing through Parliament, will remain a distant and quite probably missed opportunity.

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