Newlyn Fish Market - boats due to land.

Thursday, 30 September 2021

The Politics of Division


Fishing: Sustainability and Environment.




It is not that difficult to exploit divisions in the fishing industry. We are a complex, multi-faceted, diverse industry, targeting a wide range of different species. We operate inshore and offshore with a bewildering range of gears, fishing from different ports, in vessel sizes that range from under 8 metres to over 100 metres. Quota shares are always divisive because they are a zero-sum game. More fundamentally, who receives a licence to fish and what kind of licence, involves political and administrative choices that can generate much heat and friction within the fishing industry.

Enter Greenpeace. An organisation that lost its founding purity decades ago and operates as an aggressive corporate body which competes in a crowded field with other better-connected NGOs and young upstarts like Extinction Rebellion. Greenpeace’s signature campaign mode is the spectacular publicity event. Not for them dialogue, evidence, shared objectives and cooperation. The body with peace in its title has spurned multiple offers for dialogue. Its preference is for identifying the splits within the industry into which it can pour its poison.

There are and always will be in our industry the gullible or the cynical who can see advantage in associating with the playground bully. Not for them concerns for the livelihoods or lives of other fishermen. They are prepared to line up with a criminal body which endangers the lives of other fishermen by dumping boulders on fishing grounds. That, for them, is an OK thing to do.

At a time when 38% of UK waters are designated as one kind or another of marine protected areas and offshore windfarms are planned to expand by at least a factor of four within the coming decade, with the potential to displace hundreds if not thousands of fishermen from their customary grounds, one would have thought the case was never stronger for industry unity. But no, Greenpeace have persuaded some that expelling midwater trawlers, whose gear never touches the bottom from MPAs should be a priority – simply because they are big.

It doesn’t take much imagination or insight to understand that these are false friends – who will turn on any fleet segment if it can generate publicity and donations. Every fishing gear has an environmental impact. We catch fish. That is our job. We do it to feed people. Our task as an industry is to manage and minimise those impacts and to sustain livelihoods and communities at the same time. If we turn on each other, like any group, political party, or nation, we will go down.

All of this is not to deny that when large-scale, efficient, fishing capacity is deployed, management and monitoring must be robust if we are to maintain sustainable fisheries. There are concerns about what is happening in the Thames Estuary, where huge infrastructure projects have disturbed sediments in recent years. Many NFFO members have expressed concern over the rapid expansion of the fly-shooting fleet in the Channel. The inshore crab and lobster fisheries on the south-east coast have collapsed. Cod have moved north (but on the other hand, the biomass of North Sea plaice is above anything seen in the historic record). It is also worth remembering, in contrast to Greenpeace’s catastrophe narrative, that most of our stocks have been moving steadily in the right direction for almost two decades now. The point is that scapegoating one fleet segment does not amount to a coherent management strategy, or adequately address this complex of issues.

So, there is a choice to make. Sign up for the dubious charms of the divisive snake-oil salesmen or work with other fishers to make things better. The latter is not an easy road. It involves cooperation and compromise. It involves listening to the other side and finding a way through. It involves engaging with fisheries scientists and fisheries administrators on the detail of fisheries management. Above all it involves respect for other fishers whatever the size of vessel, home port or gear used. Inevitably, there are tensions and frictions. And strong individuals. And arguments. But without that respect and the cooperation it generates, we are lost my friends, we are lost.

Andrew Pascoe

Fisherman and President of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations