Brexit - What does it mean for our small scale fishers?

Brexit will make a difference to our small operation here at Sole.

In the first instance, we export around 25% of our fish to like-minded colleagues in Belgium.*  In the past, a single sheet of paper with address and outline of box contents sufficed. Now we need complete no fewer than 5 documents – a Health Certificate, Catch Certificate, Storage Document, Process Statement and a Commercial Invoice.  In addition, a Vet insects the palette before despatch.  In principle, I am in favour of these measures, for example, the Catch Certificates are in place to ensure we don’t trade in illegally landed or endangered species, China’s wet markets would do well to have such procedures in place. The reality is however that this new trading regime is likely to kill off many small-scale food producer’s abilities to import and export with the EU, leaving consumers in the UK with access to only large global brands, imagine a world without your favourite artisan salami or brie!  

Our first attempt to export fish to Belgium post -Brexit was January 13th, after three more failed attempts - on one occasion because our labels read ‘UK’ and not ‘United Kingdom’ - finally the fish arrived with our customer on April 3rd at 3am.  All this time, our fish had sat in a freezer in Grimsby. We were charged for storing it there, and we were charged for the four aborted despatches by the transport company.  Any hope of profit was lost after the first failed despatch, now it is a case of limiting the losses.

The crux of the problem arises from being small-scale. The volumes we export are insufficient to commission a full shipping container, instead relying on a haulage company to amalgamate orders under a ‘groupage’ scheme. This allows small-scale producers to export low volumes cost effectively. However, if there is a single mistake on any of the documents submitted by the various companies, the entire shipment is rejected.  This puts considerable pressure on the haulage companies, who have trucks and drivers held up at ports for days on end, at considerable cost. As a result, many of the haulage companies have simply stopped offering groupage services, indeed, the  company we’d used for years pre-Brexit has yet to restart this year.    

No doubt the second time around the paperwork will be easier, but this won’t reduce the cost and time of creating these five documents, or the cost of the vet inspection.  We will also have to factor in a longer transit time, as it seems probable there will be delays arising from inaccurate paperwork indefinitely, inevitably adding to storage cost at the port.

Government has offered support to fisheries companies exporting, we’ve applied for funding, and if successful, I am minded to use these funds to pay off the haulage company brave enough to attempt groupage, if they decline to collect from us in future, we face an immediate 25% loss of sales.  Brexit certainly hasn’t been good for the small -scale fishing fleet.

* The small-scale fisheries sector no longer exists in Belgium, it is virtually a completely industrialised fleet, and for this reason our Belgian customers seek to buy British fish from exclusively inshore, small-scale boats.

Trade aside, what has it meant for our fishers?

Britain has got on the face of it a 25% increase in quota, i.e., the right to fish certain species, phased in over 5 years. This means little for the small-scale fisher, unless by some miracle the government distributes this extra quota based on the EU’s newly determined allocation to consider environment, society and economy equally, rather than by historic catch record, the more likely basis of the distribution.  Even for the bigger boats though, in reality, the Brexit deal resulted in the EU agreeing to hand over 25% of their current fishing quota of certain UK fish stocks. The EU currently has rights to fish a third of the total quota from UK waters, so this uplift for our fishers actually works out at just 8.3%. It’s no wonder that UK fishers don’t feel they’ve got the deal they were promised.

Given the rhetoric on the importance of sovereignty in the Brexit deal, the most curious missed opportunity for the fishers on the south coast is not to have pushed for exclusive fishing access between 6 nautical miles and 12 nm, this could have made a huge difference to the small-scale inshore fishers. All told, our fishers have gained nothing, and fishing is patchy as I write as prices are volatile given the collapse in demand from Europe and  UK restaurants.  It won’t take long for new trade routes to develop, after all there is generally more demand for fish than there is supply, but if the new trade partners are less exacting on the origins of the fish, it doesn’t bode well for environmental protection.

The following background piece on fishing is written with thanks to Jerry Percy’s piece for NUTFA (New Under Ten’s Fisheries Association), The New Economic Foundation’s research and Greenpeace’s Unearthed report.

The current UK fishing sector employs around 12000 fishermen, about the same number as Debenhams, and contributes around 0.02% of GDP. 

The low contribution to GDP can to some extent be explained by the ownership of this fishing effort. The UK fleet is made up of 5,911 boats, 21% of which are more than 10 metres in length, while 79% are 10 metre or smaller - the official ‘small-scale, inshore fishing’ definition, and the boats that Sole of Discretion work exclusively with. 

In terms of access to fishing rights, (quota), the under ten fleet has less than 2% with the larger sector taking the remaining 98% share.  It is clear from this that already the small-scale fishers work at huge disadvantage, but there are other points to note, too. Firstly, something over 50% of the UK’s national quota is owned by foreign interest, with one Dutch supertrawler company owning 25%.  These supertrawlers can fish up to the 6 nautical mile limit, limiting the number of fish that make it through to be caught by the thousands of small-scale boats, plus it limits the ability of the small-scale fishers to leave their static nets out beyond 6 nm for fear of the supertrawlers towing it away.  One of these supertrawlers hit the headlines in 2019 for fishing in a UK marine protected area – our small-scale boats would barely register on this scaled illustration.


The second point to note is that the small-scale fishers were never permitted to own their own quota, unlike the large-scale operators who sold it.  In fact, half of England's quota was sold to foreign operators.  £160m worth of England's fishing quota is in the hands of vessels owned by companies based in Iceland, Spain and the Netherlands. That amounts to 130,000 tonnes of fish a year and 55% of the quota's annual value in 2019.


Why were quotas sold off?

Many parts of the quota were sold by English fishermen in the 1990s when fishing rights were cut dramatically. Cod fishing, for instance, was almost entirely stopped for several years. Foreign companies then bought it up as a long-term investment, and experts say the quota market has been allowed to develop in an unregulated way ever since.

There have been sometimes dramatic falls in stocks, and according to the MMO (Defra’s Marine Maritime Organisation) landings of fish were only a fifth of the quantity landed in 1970, and while our fishers may complain about the French holding 84% of the quota for cod in the English Channel while UK fishers just 9%, the scientific advice for the past two years has been that we shouldn’t be fishing cod at all due to the fragile status of the stock. As Nutfa points out, it is something of a contradiction in terms to be fighting for a better share of a stock that is not available to catch in the first place.

Elsewhere in Europe the level of foreign ownership varies. In Belgium, the figure is just over a quarter, but other EU countries have much stricter rules.

There is very little foreign ownership in France and Ireland for example, and in two countries outside the EU that have big fishing fleets - Iceland and Norway - there is no foreign ownership at all.

Why does it matter?

We need transparency on our food now more than ever, as food standards may potentially drop post Brexit, and environmental credentials with it. Moreover, the dire consequences of a post-corona economy, makes building local economic resilience ever more important. The small-scale sector employs more people per kilo of fish landed than the large sector and, for the most part, with their low impact trawls, static nets, lines and pots are able to get more per kilo of fish than the industrial sector. Their income is locally spent rather than squirreled away to a distant country. Plus, the small boat catch is processed locally benefiting land-based employment as compares to factory ships who employ mostly a non-UK labour force, and whose hard-earnt wages are usually sent back home.

At Sole of Discretion we remain focused on supporting the small-scale fishers, offering them fair, agreed prices irrespective of fluctuating market prices in order to keep the skills and livelihood of these fishers going. Catch less, earn more, treat each fish with dignity and turn each one into tasty, nutritional food. That is what we set out to do, and thanks to your support, continue to be able to deliver today.