AN UNUSUAL alliance of Greenpeace, the government, and small-boat fishermen is poised for an unprecedented court battle with Britain’s most powerful fishing groups.
Today, May 1st, marks the first day of hearings in a landmark case which campaigners say could have “momentous consequences” for small-scale fishermen in the UK and the sustainable management of fisheries.
At the heart of the dispute is the decision by the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to reallocate a small amount of “consistently unused” fishing quota from Fish Producer Organisations – which control over 95% of the UK’s fishing rights – to small-scale fishermen. Though small-scale fishing boats make up three-quarters of the UK’s fleet, they receive just 4% of the annual fish quotas.
DEFRA’s move was seen as a lifeline for small-scale fishermen, but the UK Association of Fish Producer Organisations (UKAFPO) are set to argue in court that reallocating part of their share of fishing quota is tantamount to “deprivation of possessions”. Environmental campaigners said this implies that quota is a private asset rather than a public good.
"This case is not just about shifting a bit of fishing quota from one sector of the fleet to another – it's a fight for the very soul of our seas,” said Greenpeace ocean campaigner Ariana Densham. She said the big fishing companies were instigating a “massive fish grab” which is threatening the livelihoods of many of the small-scale fishermen who fish sustainably.
If the large fishing groups were to win it could impact on the ability of the UK to implement the long-awaited reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, which prioritises low-impact fishing.
Officially, fishing quotas have always been no more than temporary concessions to utilise a public resource, reallocated to fishermen every year. In practice, however, campaigners say that vessel owners now treat quota as a private asset – buying it, selling it, renting it out to other fishermen, and even using it as collateral for bank loans.
The UK's fishing quota – estimated to be worth over £1 billion back in 1999, and now likely to be a multi-billion pound asset – has been the object of growing media and public scrutiny over the last few years.
At present there is no publically available information on who holds fishing quota, besides the amount allocated to producer organisations every year. Following media reports suggesting banks and even football clubs may have bought quota as a financial investment, DEFRA has been under pressure to publish a register of quota holders, and has indicated it intends to do so by the end of the year.