After Brexit we could fish like Iceland – but is there a catch?

After Brexit we could fish like Iceland – but is there a catch?

“The Common Fisheries Policy has been a biological, environmental, economic and social disaster…. Exchanging a disastrous system run from Brussels for one run by London is no panacea”

These words in a 2005 Conservative Green Paper were written by former Secretary of State for DEFRA, Owen Paterson after touring the countries of the North East Atlantic to see how they looked after their marine resources.

The paper campaigned upon restoring national control which will now come to pass with leaving the EU.

This provides the fantastic opportunity to repatriate national control over Britain’s entire Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to facilitate implementation of a new bespoke, discard free British management system.

A system which must ensure Paterson’s words do not become a self-fulfilling prophesy and a system which must allow fulfilment of the opportunity Brexit presents to rejuvenate a multi-billion pound industry and coastal communities.

Despite the Common Fisheries Policy, fish stocks have been shown to be on the increase and many are now at sustainable levels – this means that this essential raw ingredient, when finally managed correctly, can allow Britain to become one of the worlds leading fishing nations.

The key question is which management should Britain pursue?

Many in Britain look to Iceland as a model.

Recent visits by Government ministers suggest post-Brexit British management will either be a tightening of the Quota system to an Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) system such as Iceland with a fully enforced ban on discards.

Alternatively, management could be by Effort Control where vessels are limited in their Days-at-Sea in return for being able to land and record all catches in a ‘catch less, land more system’ as Fishing for Leave advocate.

However, just because Iceland exceed the dismal EU Common Fisheries Policy does not make their system something we should adopt. There would be significant problems if the Iceland model were to be applied in Britain.

Fishing is a vital part of Iceland’s economy, accounting for 26% of GDP and because of this the country has pursued a model geared towards maximum economic output and efficiency. Whereas, for Britain, our priority on fishing is the health and well-being of vibrant coastal communities.

Iceland’s fishing waters are very different to the sea around the UK. Iceland has fewer species of fish with less of a mix than Britain which makes it easier to be able to catch the ‘right’ species listed in a vessel’s quota. The highly mixed ecology around the British Isles means quotas are difficult to adhere to. In Britain quotas cause discards because it is difficult to avoid catching the ‘wrong’ type of fish. Banning the symptom instead of the cause means vessels have to stop fishing when they exhaust their lowest quota allocation.

Iceland operates an Individual Transferable Quota system where the allocations are owned and can be bought, sold and traded. They can also be used as security to raise capital against and have consequently attracted significant monetary value.

Those advocating copying Iceland as some sort of bastion of admirable management miss that Britain already has a de-facto ITQ system of administering quotas – but in name only.

In 1999 the British government created a system of Fixed Quota Allocation (FQA) Units which gave vessels entitlement to a fixed share of whatever quota the EU allocated Britain – in effect FQAs act like stocks and shares. Through a system of Producers Organisations (POs), in effect co-operatives of vessels, quotas are able to be swapped and traded as in Iceland.

As a result, a public resource has been corporatised into the hands of a few with no heed or consideration as to the consequences for communities. As the EU incessantly cut the quotas, vessels had to acquire more and more FQA units just to catch the same volume of fish. An ITQ system also sees bigger companies with greater financial leverage taking a greater percentage of quotas.

This is exactly what has already happened in Iceland where in many instances all quotas have been sold or taken from numerous fishing villages around the coast.

This is one of the hottest and most divisive political issues in Icelandic politics: 10% of the fishing companies hold more than 50% of the fishing rights and the 40 largest hold 84%. It has seen the ruination of coastal communities, inshore fishing and family businesses. As family businesses are squeezed out, the supporting trades and shops close, house prices fall, and people move away – it’s something akin to the highland clearances. This is the pattern we have seen repeated in Britain under the de-facto ITQ system we already operate.

Even purely from the economics, an ITQ system puts a disproportionate financial drain upon the industry as ever-increasing amounts of liquidity have to be invested to acquire and maintain the right to fish. Rather than reinvestment in newer or upgraded vessels the majority of the industry who try to soldier on are doing so in a fleet with an ever-increasing average age.

The dark underbelly of British fishing

ITQ Quotas also creates a system of Quota Rentals – the dark underbelly of British fishing.

As a trade in quotas developed, the majority of vessels could rent quota to substitute for what they lacked. This created companies and individuals who became quota traders or ‘slipper skippers’.

As quotas have been cut or lagged behind stocks due to the poor science they generate, boats have increasingly had to rent – as demand has intensified so has the price. Rentals on some species account for an extortionate 70% of the value of the fish landed. Government statistics now show that slipper skippers are bleeding away 60% of the profit from active vessels.

Those slipper skippers now hold a dominant position – effectively a racket or cartel advocating the status quo.

Even more discouraging is that Iceland’s system has not managed to get rid of discards. Discards are banned in Iceland but there is no at-sea enforcement to make sure vessels comply. If vessels do not have quota through swaps or exorbitant renting costs they will always discard fish in order to keep fishing for species that they do have quota for.  It would be financial illiteracy to do otherwise.

This will only intensify with a discard ban where all fish will have to be legally landed rather than discarded.

Another point to make is the impact on young men. One of the main drivers of young men to go to sea traditionally is that they had the opportunity to work their way up and aspire through their ability and hard work to become an owner and skipper one day. The ITQ system crushes this. With this incentive gone, along with having the indignity of having to dump half your labours into the sea, many young men from fishing families have chosen to pursue less arduous careers.

In contrast, The Days-at-Sea system advocated by Fishing for Leave is discard free and generating real time science means Britain fulfils her international obligation under UNCLOS to fish in the most sustainable manner possible. Most importantly, it gives an equitable system where large and small vessels can prosper which will allow communities and coastal constituencies to rebuild and flourish for generations to come.

The choice is clear. We either move to a system that ticks all the boxes, or, to appease a minority of quota interests, we drive ourselves off a cliff ecologically and economically.

If we continue with the same ITQ quota policies we will remain in perpetual decline. Consolidation of fishing by large companies and choke species would be the final nail in the coffin. Coastal communities voted Leave in the referendum and Conservative at the last general election to save our fishing communities. We’ll never have success on this if we continue the same bad management and we will never rebuild coastal communities by keeping the same system of continual decline.

To retain and intensify the same system on steroids will not achieve rejuvenation of communities and sensible management of fish stocks. Taking the opportunity of leaving the EU to embrace a unique, real time monitored and managed fisheries system will allow coastal communities to boom.