Give a man a fish…

Chris Williams, a TEDxTruro speaker from 2016 gives his views on fishing, the unfairness of the UK’s fishing quota and Brexit.

‘Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.’

Last year at TEDxTruro I shared three experiences which shaped my life and also my view of fishing. It a subject which most people don’t ever think about, but working in fishing communities all over the world it’s impossible to ignore. As consumers we need to pay more attention to the social and environmental impacts our consumption choices have…and in the case of fishing it’s actually not just on fish stocks or on the dangerous livelihood of being a fisherman. The social dimension of fisheries is fantastically interesting, but also suffers from the same problems of injustice and inequality that we see in many other aspects of our global economic system. When I started working my motivation was very biological, I only really focussed on the ecology the marine species and habitats and I really had a fish eye view of the marine environment. But over time this fish eye view has shifted to a human focus… it’s this experience I wanted to share.

People are literally getting paralysed or even dying for lobster in Honduras and sadly this has not changed in the past year.

There is very little public awareness or media attention given to the plight of the lobster divers. Unlike in Cornwall where people use pots to catch lobster -divers off Honduras and Nicaragua (the Mosquito Coast) use scuba tanks to dive for them and frequently get the bends (breathing in air under pressure means nitrogen can get lodged in tissue and bones and cause paralysis or death). Serious accidents are common. Of the 1,800 divers each year, there are around 120 accidents and up to 20 fatalities… without training, proper equipment, the lack of legal alternatives to lobster diving means this tragedy continues to this day, leaving 1 in 5 lobster fishermen unable to work or provide for their families. These divers bear the cost of cheap lobster heading to the USA. This is where I learnt that how seafood is caught, and who catches can have a major human impact.

The second chapter about shark fisherman in Mozambique may actually have got worse as cyclone Dineo hit Mozambique at the start of 2017. The devastation was immense, and hardship, a lack of food and an almost total closure of tourism means that people will be under even more pressure to make ends meet. The risks of both eating shark meat and the damage to shark populations in order to meet demand in Asia are likely to intensify.

When it comes to fishing in the UK, the biggest unexpected change has happened: Brexit. And all of a sudden, although they have been ignored in decision making and politics for years, now fishermen have been thrust into the spotlight as they became the poster boys for the leave campaign. Early this month the UK Government announced they want to ‘take back control’ of our waters, by leaving the London Convention. Going further, the announcement included a focus on fisheries policy which is ‘fair’.

So, do I think the UK’s fishermen are likely to get what they were promised out of Brexit?

As I said in my TEDxTruro talk: fish move around, many species such as mackerel or bass or cod migrate, they spawn in some places, and move as they feed and grow throughout their lives. For that reason, they need to be managed internationally, as with so many competing countries after the same resource, if there isn’t any shared management or agreed fishing limits – then the race to fish (‘catch it before someone else does’) will rapidly deplete fish stocks. The classic tragedy of the unmanaged commons.

Whatever happens we will need to continue to work with other EU countries and fishing fleets, as we share the same resources. We can’t just set our own fishing limits and ignore what other countries are doing as we have a cumulative impact on the stock (and also a cumulative ethical and legal – UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS) to manage our marine resources sustainably.

Many of the problems facing UK fishermen were also not the doing of Brussels. They had their origins in Westminster. For the last 40 years, the UK Government gave less than 2% of the right to fish (‘quota’) to the 78% of the UK fleet that’s made up of boats under ten metres – those familiar vessels around the small ports of Cornwall. They did this based on who had a ‘track record’ of catching our key fish stocks between 1994-1996. The Government handed out fishing rights (quota) to the larger vessels and to the detriment of the inshore fleet. Leaving the EU will not address that problem as any changes to the quota regime will need to be resolved in court.

Today quota ownership is so concentrated that only 3 companies now hold 61% of the fishing rights in England… The flip side is that for those lucky enough to be gifted quota or having bought it on the market they now have increased financial and political power – and this will take more than Brexit to change.

If we don’t address this unfairness in the quota system we all lose out, in wasted fish, declining fishing ports and through not capturing the resource rent for public benefit.

We can make a societal choice about how to get the best value from our fish stocks.

At the New Economics Foundation we have shown how to redefine efficiency in fisheries and made proposals about how to improve the UK quota system.

We need to recognise its the UK Government that has created this problem, although it was frequently blamed on the EU. Now more than ever it’s the UK Government that needs to take a new approach to fisheries; to protect fishing communities around the UK and ensure the benefits are captured now and for the future. Leaving the EU hasn’t and won’t solve this problem. It has always been for the UK Government to figure out what the best use of those fishing rights is.

We need to get the best value to society out of these shared resources, rather than continue handing them out based on who had a place at the table 20 years ago.

At present the UK quota allocation system makes it possible for slipper skippers to earn a living from leasing out quota they were gifted for free by the UK Government, without even having to set foot on a fishing vessel. That can’t be right when there are small scale fishermen forced to throw edible fish overboard or remain in economic hardship when they fish in a low impact sustainable way.

So it might be time to update the proverb I started with, from ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’, to ‘Give a man the rights to fish… and he might stop fishing and just lease them out.’

The announcement of an upcoming Fisheries Bill in the Queen’s speech is encouraging, but the nettle of Quota allocation needs to be grasped and we need to think about what we want our fishing industry, our coastal communities and our marine environment to be like 10, 20 or 50 years from now. This type of long term planning is essential, as is close cooperation with our neighbours with whom we share our common fish stocks.

Watch Chris’ talk: Fresh Thinking on Fish