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Western Europe / UK

Who killed the British fishing industry?

The UK's fisheries were a central part of the debate in the lead-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016, but why was such a relatively small industry so important to both sides?

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The reversal of the decline of the British fishing industry formed a central plank of the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, but thus far the reality of life free from the EU has not lived up to expectations. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

It was one of the most surreal sights in the months leading up to the UK’s Brexit referendum. In the starboard corner – or, to be more accurate, a boat leading a flotilla of 60 vessels up the Thames – was UKIP leader and Brexiteer-in-chief Nigel Farage, backed by Labour MP Kate Hoey. In the port corner, pursuing Farage and company in a vessel of his own, was pop-star-turned-activist Sir Bob Geldof, aided and abetted by Rachel Johnson, the sister of future prime minister Boris Johnson

The scene of what was to be dubbed ‘the Battle of the Thames’ was farcical, but the cause of this ‘debate’ was deadly serious: the past, present and future of the British fishing industry.

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The reason why the fishing industry was so integral to the Leave campaign is straightforward. Before the UK joined the European Common Market in 1973, the UK’s fishing fleet was vast, and supported numerous coastal towns and cities. In the subsequent 43 years it had dwindled to next to nothing in many of these locations. 

Places such as Hull, Grimsby and Fleetwood had boasted some of the busiest docks in the world. Many of these docks are now concreted over and host cinemas or retail parks. The logic espoused by Farage, Hoey and the passengers on those 60-something anti-EU boats went something like this: this decline was all the EU’s fault; leave the EU and the UK can return to this halcyon era of fisheries dominance. The reality has been somewhat different. 

British fishing decline started long before the EU

Overfishing, geopolitics and the way in which the UK allocates the quantities of fish that can be caught are the most significant reasons behind the decline of British fishing, as identified by Dr Miriam Greenwood in a report for City, University of London’s Centre for Food Policy.

Similarly, a study into the effects of 118 years of industrial fishing on UK bottom-trawl fisheries in the scientific journal Nature claims that for every unit of fishing power – “a measure of how fishers increase their catching power over time, for example, by improvements in gear, or ability to detect fish” – used today, “bottom trawlers land little more than one-seventeenth of the catches in the late-19th century”.

The study also shows that UK fleet landings per unit of power figures suggest a decline in the availability of bottom-living fish – known as 'demersal fish' – of 94% from 1889 to 2007, with 1889 being the year when landing records began. 

This study into the effects of bottom trawling on British fishing unveils one truth: the decline in landings preceded any enrolment in common fishing European policies, let alone the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) introduced in 1983. 

More than 100 years before, in the 1830s, the development of railways became a defining moment in UK fisheries, making it possible to distribute fish rapidly across the UK, thus increasing demand for food that until then was mainly reserved for coastal communities. 

Although the first mention of bottom trawling – anywhere in the world – was in 1376, it was the appearance of steam-powered bottom trawlers in the 1880s that kick-started a wave of more intensive fishing, according to Nature's research. 

This rapid increase in fishing activities enabled by steam-powered fishing trawlers is at the heart of catch data being recorded from 1889. This technological advancement allowed fishers to head “further offshore, for longer durations, with larger gear, which could reach deeper”, states Nature

In turn, this prompted questions about the sustainability of trawl fishing, its ability to damage habitats and reducing fish stocks, which in turn led to a Royal Commission of Enquiry into bottom trawling, which went on for three years, ending in 1885. It concluded that not enough data existed to reach any evidence in regard to the damaging effects of bottom trawling, and recommended that catch data should be recorded, which started in 1889. 

The inquiry led to the first fishing records, but concerns over the damage caused by overfishing in the UK date back even further. Another earlier Royal Commission of Enquiry into fisheries had been launched in 1863, as worries surrounding the condition of fish stocks were already occurring. 

The four waves of decline in British fisheries

The decline of the fishing industry in England and Wales can, according to Nature's research, be separated into four phases. A first phase, from the point at which records began in 1889 to the beginning of the First World War, is characterised by a rapid industrialisation and the intensification of fishing in domestic waters when the UK fleet moved from sail to steam power, which led to an increase in fish landings. However, new technology meant an increasing number of boats that would cover more ground. This caused a steep decline in fish stocks. 

The second phase is also characterised by increasing catch levels, with UK fishing fleets expanding into new waters as far away as the Arctic and West Africa. This phase lasted until the late 1950s, and saw an increase in landings per unit of fishing power (LPUP). This aggressive expansion into the waters that many countries saw as 'theirs' opened the door to the start of the collapse in catch numbers between 1965 and 1982, which is the third phase identified by Nature and which takes in the most of the fishing disputes known as the 'Cod Wars', which started when Iceland declared an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), first within four miles of its borders in 1950, and later of 200 nautical miles in 1975, effectively preventing the British from fishing in its waters. 

The final phase starts with the creation of the CFP by the European Commission in 1983, which found that landings into England and Wales “were only maintained throughout the 1960s because of an increase in fishing power”, while a sharp decline in LPUP started in 1957, “a decade before the collapse in landings began”. 

This fall in LPUP proves, according to Nature, that fish stocks were suffering more and more as fishing practices became more and more intensive, which in turn necessitated more power and better technology to be deployed in order to travel further and locate harder-to-find fish given the depletion in stocks closer to home.

The Cod Wars, the Common Fisheries Policy and the EU

There were fewer fish and greater effort was being put into catching what was out there, but that alone does not explain the decline of the British fishing industry. Geopolitics has also played a central role, although to an extent this is explained by wider concerns surrounding fish stocks.

Having fished the waters off Iceland since the 15th century, British fishers did not take the Nordic country’s protection of its waters gladly, prompting the Cod Wars.

Iceland's first steps to protect its waters and fishing stocks in 1950 – through a four-mile exclusion zone – had a big impact on the UK's most capitalised fleet, distant water fishers. Until that point, Brits has defended the principle of open seas, of fishing waters not being limited by EEZs, according to Greenwood at City, University of London. 

The first Cod War was prompted by Iceland’s decision in 1958 to expand its fishing limit to 12 miles off its coast, which led to widely shared images of the Royal Navy accompanying British trawlers to fish off Icelandic waters, only to be met by gunboats trying to stop them.

Following talks at the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea between 1960 and 1961, the UK and Iceland finally accepted the 12-mile limit and the first Cod War was concluded. This prompted the UK to consider its own 12-mile regime, which led to the 1964 London Fisheries Convention concerning fishing rights across western Europe, agreed by 13 countries.

The convention stated that a six-mile coastal band was reserved for each individual country, but fishing in the waters between the 6–12-mile area was permitted to the other countries if “their nationals had been customarily doing so during a 10-year reference period up to 1962”, said Greenwood in the City, University of London report. The British 12-mile zone claim was formalised in the Fishery Limits Act 1964. 

However, with fishing stocks continuing to dwindle, Iceland declared a 50-mile limit in September 1972 and the second Cod War started, just as the UK was about to enter the European Economic Community (EEC), having been blocked by French president Charles de Gaulle during previous applications in 1961 and 1969. 

In October 1973, the UK and Iceland reached an agreement, putting an end to the second Cod War, which had seen the nets of British and German trawlers cut by Icelandic fishers to stop them from fishing within their new 50-mile limit.  However, this peace did not last for long. In 1975 Iceland took matters a step further and declared a 200-mile exclusive zone, which led to the third Cod War, although this was brief and ended in 1976 with the intervention of Nato. 

The existence of a US/Nato base in Keflavik, Iceland, (itself a Nato member) saw the US mount pressure on the UK to acquiesce to Iceland's demands, over fears that Iceland could end up aligning with the USSR, with anti-Nato sentiment growing in the country. 

As the third round of the Cod Wars concluded, thousands of jobs were lost in the UK long-distance fishing fleet, and a compensation package was not agreed upon until 2001, for about 1,300 trawlermen. 

The UK followed up by establishing its own 200-mile limit, which at that point was becoming common among EEC member states, but due to the EEC policy of members having equal access to fishing waters, the newly declared EEZs of member states “became a single pool of shared waters except for the 12-mile derogation”, according to Greenwood. 

The rising resentment over quotas

The CFP, often blamed for the decline of the British fishing industry, only started life in 1983, points out Greenwood, as until then EEC fisheries policy mainly consisted of the principle of equal access to members’ waters and promoting a common market, without any management of fisheries.

With the CFP came the introduction of two regulations: one with broad measures to promote conservation – including catch quotas – and another one that related to supporting technical measures such as net mesh sizes, Greenwood stated in the report. 

From then, member states would be allocated quotas (or "total allowable catches”) for key commercial species, to be decided on an annual basis by the fishing ministers of each member state, based on the country’s historic catches pre-1983. This was referred to as “relative stability”.

However, fish landings in the UK had started to decline a decade before the introduction of the CFP. Greenwood states in the City, University of London report that the long-term fall in fish stocks was caused by overfishing and reduced fishing opportunities due to the various Cod Wars.  

Another cause of grief among fishers in the UK has been quota allocation, but again, the way in which the quota allocated to the UK is split lays in the hands of the British government, not in Brussels, according to Greenwood, who highlights two reasons why the system does not produce a fair outcome. 

First, in the UK, most of the quota allocation is under the management of producer organisations (POs), a system that originated with the CFP but was intended to deal mainly with marketing functions. However, in the UK these POs would deal mostly with quotas. The problem is that not all fishers, particularly those of a smaller scale, are in a PO, and this puts them at a disadvantage, as the small pool of quotas that is not managed by POs has been controlled by the relevant fisheries administration bodies in the UK. 

The second problem when approaching quota allocation in the UK is the privatisation, or semi-privatisation, of the non-PO quota share, according to Greenwood. The quota shares allocated to fishers based on their historical catches became tradable 'fixed quota allocations', meaning the units can be bought and sold, while allowing large fishing companies to accumulate sizeable portions of the quota and also facilitate quota trading by people who have no intention of doing any fishing, so-called “slipper skippers”, Greenwood states in the report.

International 'quota hoppers' are another source of quota allocation-related grief. These are fishermen from other countries who acquire British boats – and licences – to gain access to the UK’s fishing quota.

A Greenpeace investigation in 2018 unveiled that almost 80% of England’s fishing quota was held by foreign fishers or families on the Sunday Times Rich List, with five families on that list holding or controlling 29% of the wider UK’s fishing quota.

This commodification of the UK’s fishing quota is in the hands of the government to fix, and therefore cannot be blamed on the EU. Furthermore, marine safety specialist Robert Greenwood explains that the licensing for the UK fleet is uncommon across the rest of Europe, as most European countries “didn't allow the licenses to become an economic factor”.

“[Fishing licences] were given back to the government at the end of the fishing period," he says. "So if you sold your boat, you gave your licence back, the next person that bought the boat had to apply for a licence. So the fact that it became a commodity is probably one of the biggest historical differences between the UK and a lot of other countries.” 

Brexit hopes and watered-down dreams

The UK quitting the EU was branded by Leave campaigners as a “sea of opportunity” for the UK fishing industry, which by 2016 was desperate for a lifeline. Fishing became an emotionally loaded topic before and after the referendum campaign, even though it is a relatively small industry within the UK

[We were assured that] fishing had a very high priority and would not be sacrificed for a [Brexit] trade deal. In the event, that was not true. Barry Deas, the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations

In 2019, the fishing and aquaculture industry contributed £446m to the UK economy in terms of gross value added (GVA), according to the UK government’s UK Fisheries Statistics. The sector accounted for 3.44% of the broader agricultural, forestry and fishing sector, and 0.02% of the UK’s total GVA across all sectors.

Despite the promises made to the UK fishing industry should the country leave the EU, the main fishing organisations are largely unhappy with the the UK Fisheries Bill.

Barry Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO), explains that his federation along with the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, met many times with ministers and senior cabinet ministers post-2016, as well as with Brexit Minister Lord Frost, and all the signals pointed towards a Withdrawal Agreement and Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), “but fishing had a very high priority and would not be sacrificed for a trade deal. In the event, that was not true”, he says. 

Similarly, Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive officer of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, explains that the fishing industry “certainly saw [Brexit] as an opportunity to rebalance and have a much better share of the resources in our waters and have a much more normalised coastal state relationship with the EU”. 

Macdonald adds that the Scottish fishing industry was aspiring to work with the EU in a similar way to Norway, whereby the country shares its quotas in exchange for reciprocal fishing access to the EU’s EEZs and access to the EU markets. “That seemed to tie in very much with the government's narrative in terms of becoming an independent coastal state taking advantage of the rights and responsibilities that an independent coastal state has under international law,” she says.

What does the future hold for the British fishing industry?

Given the high hopes the UK fishing industry had in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote in 2016, it would be fair to say that many feel let down.

We are now in what feels like a dysfunctional fisheries relationship with the EU; it is not a normal coastal state relationship. Elspeth Macdonald, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation

“We are now in what feels like a dysfunctional fisheries relationship with the EU; it is not a normal coastal state relationship," says Macdonald. "We don't have, certainly during the first few years of this arrangement, the same types of firm negotiations and leverage that another independent coastal state would have. So we feel it certainly hasn't met the expectations that the industry had and has fallen very significantly short in some areas.” 

At the end of September 2021, the UK and the EU signed a TCA, which the UK government stated would translate into a full quota share uplift of about £146m in fishing opportunities for the country's fleet by 2026.

This is equal to about 25% of the value of the average EU catch from UK waters and will be phased in over five years. However, the NFFO has undertaken its own independent analysis of the wider outcomes of the TCA, which points at a radically different, and grim, outcome for UK fisheries: a total loss in excess of £300m by 2026.

Reaching an agreement for UK trawlers to fish off other countries’ coasts, such as Norway or France, is particularly crucial for the future of its long-distance fishing industry. 

Trevor Datson, spokesperson for UK Fisheries and owner of the Hull-based Kirkella, the only long-distance water trawler in the UK, explains the dire situation regarding the future of the distant water fishing industry in the UK without proper agreements in place.

“We really cannot have a situation next year, the same as this year, where we have had to be fishing in areas where we do not normally fish, and for species and stocks that we do not normally fish, and having to lay up the boat for a lot of the time. That is simply not viable,” he says. Datson is hopeful of being able to catch at least some cod and haddock in Norwegian waters, but he stresses the need to have agreements in place with the other countries where the UK long-distance fleet could go fish.

“There are other places that we can fish, but we don't have agreements there either," says Datson. "We could be fishing off Greenland, but we don't have an agreement with Greenland. We could be fishing off the Faroes, but we don't have an agreement with the Faroes. We could potentially even be fishing off Iceland, but we don't have an agreement with Iceland. It is just a litany of failure. We have started to wonder whether the government really does want to have a distant-water fishing industry." 

Furthermore, the NFFO analysis of the TCA highlights that permitting the EU fleets to catch 42,000 tonnes (t) in UK waters, while the UK fleet will only be allowed to catch 12,000t in EU waters, will cause similar levels of controversy as existed when the quotas were introduced in 1983. However, the analysis also notes that quotas will not be the only source of grief stemming from the TCA, as fishing rights will also be a problem.

Deas, in the introduction to the analysis, points at “the government’s failure to agree on annual fisheries agreements with Norway, the Faroes and Greenland, and the delayed UK/EU fisheries agreement for 2021” as other important factors to take into account, which only add to the complicated situation fishers are already in.

Fishing, the gig economy and the cost of life

This bleak future stacks up alongside the well-known hardships of life at sea. The labour conditions of fishers are similar to that of workers in the gig economy.

In this type of work, the fishers are effectively self-employed and when they go out to sea the catch is divided into shares between the crew and the boat, meaning that a worker's earnings are based more or less on how much they catch. However, when they are not out at sea, they receive no pay.

Twenty years ago, you could earn £20,000 a year fishing, and a flat at the time cost about £45,000; almost half the price of a flat you could earn in one year. Robert Greenwood, marine safety expert

Given this less-than-enticing situation, finding a good crew is becoming increasingly difficult due to the instability of the job itself and the ever-higher costs of living in coastal communities, according to marine safety expert Greenwood, using as an example his own experience as a fisherman. 

“Twenty years ago, you could earn £20,000 a year fishing, and a flat at the time cost about £45,000; almost half the price of a flat you could earn in one year," he says. "Now that same flat is up for sale for £190,000, but the money that you are earning for that same crew job is roughly the same, still about £20,000 a year.” 

This means that increasingly young people cannot afford to live in the areas where the boats are, and very few can afford to start a family or buy a house while staying on as a permanent crew. The only people that can afford to work as fishermen in these areas are often young and still living at home with their parents, adds Greenwood.

To compound these issues, says Greenwood, the competition in the fishing industry has intensified, with cheap fish being imported to the UK from countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, where the standards for both the quality of the vessels and the crew are substantially lower than in the UK. 

“They can sell fish into the UK cheaper than we can catch it ourselves," says Greenwood. "So you mix all of that together and you just come up with a very poor economic situation."

Will the UK's taste for fish change?

This precarious situation is compounded by the the fact that the UK is a fish-trading nation and a net importer of fish. The fish caught in the UK largely goes abroad and the fish consumed in UK households is mostly imported, but the industry is looking to help shift British consumers’ taste more towards UK-caught fish, although with little success so far, according to Deas. 

“As a nation, we import what we eat, and we export what we catch – and that is not a very easy thing to change,” he says.

“Consumer preferences were historically shaped by the very large amounts of cod that were available in northern waters in Icelandic waters in the Barents Sea," Deas adds. "A distant water fleet grew up based in ports such as Hull, Grimsby, Aberdeen, Fleetwood and Milford Haven, and it was linked to the arrival of railways, where fish could be taken to industrial conurbations quickly [and] the taste for rather bland fish, whitefish, really arose at that point.”

The most popular fish in the UK are known as the 'big five': cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns. However, Deas notes the irony in Brits going abroad to countries such as Spain, France and Italy on holiday to eat “exotic fish” like Norway lobster, which are caught in UK waters and later exported.

At the same time, supermarkets in the UK are trying to sell more UK-caught fish, according to Tina Barnes, head of impact for the Seafarers’ Charity, who adds that getting domestic fish on UK shelves helps reduce food supply chain issues and the carbon footprint of food

Does the UK fishing industry have a sustainable future?

Every industry is striving to become more environmentally friendly, but it is also clear when looking at the future options of British fishing that building back sustainably is key to its hopes of success. 

We really want wild-caught, sustainable, well-managed fisheries to be seen very much as part of the solution to how we feed an ever-growing population, with an ever-increasing demand for protein. Elspeth Macdonald

Compromised stocks led to fewer fish being available, which in turn leads to more effort required to catch them. None of this makes the lives of fishermen and women any easier. A report by the World Wide Fund for Nature published in July 2021 revealed that 43% of those working in the EU fishing industry earned below the minimum wage in 2018, while this figure jumped to 70% for the 56% of EU fishermen and women that work in smaller vessels.

On top of this, since 1974, the percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels has increased, from 10% to 34.2% in 2017, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The industry is aware, and Macdonald highlights the importance of being seen as “part of the solution to transitioning to net zero rather than part of the problem”.

“We really want wild-caught, sustainable, well-managed fisheries to be seen very much as part of the solution to how we feed an ever-growing population, with an ever-increasing demand for protein,” she adds.

This sustainable future could be a lifeline to an industry in the UK that is struggling to come to terms with a post-Brexit reality that is very different from the one it was promised. The decline of the UK fishing industry has many factors behind it, with membership of the EEC and then the EU seemingly being used as a smokescreen when overfishing and flawed quota systems were much larger culprits, and the nosedive started much earlier than the UK's membership of the bloc. The industry must now learn to survive and thrive in this new landscape, because for a major economy surrounded by water to not have a competitive fishing fleet would, quite frankly, be a national embarrassment.

Marina Leiva

Marina Leiva

Senior reporter

Marina Leiva is a senior reporter at Investment Monitor, where she specialises in the agribusiness sector.