289 - Fishing vs Finance

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A friend on FB made passing comment that UK.gov will be arguing hard for fishing rights to be restored to pre-70s glory, as perceived through rose-tinted glass. My response at the time was that this is, surely, one of those things which will be abandoned in favour of some retained rights for the financial services sector. I propose to explore those ideas here, to see if I can make myself better informed.

Fishing and fisheries are 0.12% of the UK economy [1,2]. The fishing industry is defined here as:   (i) Fishing and aquaculture (the cultivation and capture of fish and shellfish) and (ii) Fish processing (the preparation and preservation of fish and shellfish). This does not include the fleet repair and maintenance industry, and quay services since it is not possible to isolate when these activities are undertaken for the benefit of fishing boats, rather than for boats engaged in other activities.

Something like a quarter of fish exports by value are shellfish to the EU. [2] The bulk of both fishing and processing occurs in Scotland, about half as much occurs in the Yorkshire/Humberside region and less that half of that in wherever is left. Landings, tonnage landed in the UK from UK boats, was at a million tonnes (I'm calling that 100%) in 1973, 40% of that in 2009 and still below 50% since then. The value of landings by UK vessels, a term including landings made elsewhere, has steadily climbed to pass £900 million.

Unearthed [5]

The investigation found:

  • The five largest quota-holders control more than a third of UK fishing quota
  • Four of the top five belong to families on the Sunday Times Rich List
  • The fifth is a Dutch multinational whose UK subsidiary – North Atlantic Fishing Company – controls around a quarter of England’s fishing quota
  • Around half of England’s quota is ultimately owned by Dutch, Icelandic, or Spanish interests
  • More than half (13) of the top 25 quota holders have directors, shareholders, or vessel partners who were convicted of offences in Scotland’s £63m “black fish” scam – a huge, sophisticated fraud that saw trawlermen and fish processors working together to evade quota limits and land 170,000 tonnes of undeclared herring and mackerel
  • One of the flagships of the “Brexit flotilla” – which sailed up the Thames in 2016 to demand the UK’s exit from the EU – is among the UK’s 10 biggest quota-holders
  • Around 29% of UK fishing quota is directly controlled by Rich List families. Some of these families have investments in dozens of other fishing companies, meaning companies holding 37% of UK quota are wholly or partly owned by these Rich List families.

Source [5] indicates that at some point we, the UK, had a fishing quota. This piece shows that mostly it has been sold off and/or is held by very few hands indeed. Which is entirely at odds with the perception that fishing as a business is filled with very small people each struggling to make a living. Perhaps both states are true? A single boat, the Voyager, but not as Star Trek, has some 55% of the Northern Ireland quota. How can this be so, and what are the consequences of such a position? Since this came to light in 2005, how is it that the larger perception of the wronged small business has persevered? Looking just at England, it seems that indirectly ("ultimately" in the words of [5]) half of all quota is held by foreigners - Dutch, Spanish and Icelandic, while close to a third resides with just three Rich List families. I wonder which came first, being rich or gaining the quota. So we reach a situation where the smaller inshore vessels that make up 77% of the fleet ha[ve] ended up with “less than 4% of the quota”. Unbelievable.


This table, from the excellent [2], shows a trade deficit, imports exceed exports, of £M1400. At the same time we have a trade surplus with the EU, 71% out, 34% in. If you want to know where, look at the source [2], page 7.  There is a 2017 report at [3] you might like to look at, which explains the UK approach. It would seem that the UK has a very flexible system: quotas can be in any of three positions;  for a sector, non-sector or inshore. It is easy to lease or even swap sector quotas on a temporary basis, though these quotas are held by the year. Inshore and non-sector quotas are far less movable, but are allocated on a monthly basis. A sector vessel belongs in some sense to a fleet, a 'producer organisation', who in some sense manage quota on behalf of their members. The policing of this was not something I attempted to investigate, though perhaps I should.

Relevant though, and still from [2], is that Michael Gove made sensible comment in 2017 that there has in effect been overfishing throughout the period of the Common Fisheries Policy. He also pointed out then that we, the UK, don't have the fleet to land the catch, which means that there must be some form of transfer of permissions as to who may fish where and land what. Maintaining access to where any particular boat of fleet may fish may in itself be enough to preserve the status very much as it is now. Yet, when the numbers are taken into consideration, I wonder whether this is so. The energetic stance taken by the Tories with an 80-seat majority may well be tempted to strike for a position in which the English fleet is confined to English waters in return for no-one else being permitted to fish in those same waters. There are several factors arguing that this is pretty silly, since it will be very difficult to separate 'access to market' from 'access to water'. For example, the cod we like in the UK is found off the Norwegian coast, while the langoustine the southern Europeans like is found in English waters.

That is not to say that no change should occur. It is obvious to me that the small boats, under 12 metres in length, are unfairly excluded. But there are competing issues and when it comes to politics, loudly driving one issue is a great way to sweep another under an available carpet. There are differences of opinion between England and Scotland, east and west, large and small boats, inshore and offshore (almost the same thing as boat size), large-scale and small-scale fishing. Fishing interests vie with processing interests and I foresee that this is something politicians will think to encourage, since about half of 'fishing' value is in processing—and many more voters—such that action that somehow looks to increase the size of the processing industry, whoever did the catching itself, looks an attractive proposition. It seems to me that the pressures on the small-scale fisherman will be a lot worse before it improves — by which time it will be far too late.


The comparison issue is the financial sector, with something like 6.9% of GDP, but largely centred upon London [7]. Compare this £bn132 value with £bn1.4 in fishing, and the 1100 thousands employed in finance with the 24 in fishing. That's fishing at 1% of the 7% GDP of finance and 2% of the employment. Any argument that says one is in any sense more important than this becasue of the effects of the foreign competition and foreign markets has these two hurdles to jump; to argue that sector fishing is very important affect very few employees, very few Brits and surprisingly large amounts of money value. But the similar numbers for the finance sector are always very much larger, fifty to a hundred times so. So why does anyone even think fishing will get even the briefest of inclusions? The comparison doesn't stand up. The ways in which the two sectors are affected by overseas business is not entirely dissimilar, but the trade in London, even as diminished by Brexit, is still two orders of magnitude larger. That suggests to me that the lobbying is fierce — and effective, but in the end no politician is going to do much but look for ways to appease. Appease fishing, that is. Even within Scotland, where half the fishing business is, there are 84,000 finance jobs, vs the 12,500 in fishing and fish processing. In Yorks and Humberside there is a similar position, 75,000 vs 6,500. In the South West,  79,000 vs 1,750. I am sorry for the fisheries cause, but every politician is going to seek a 'third way', to steal from Tony Blair. What I would expect is that funds be found to expand or support the expansion of processing, with the intention of wooing boats fishing locally (of whatever nationality) to bring their catches here for processing. I see development of inshore fishing as being desirous, ¹ along with preservation of stocks, so that fish farming [8] becomes ever more attractive, however done.



Short form conclusion:  the fishing sector is virtually irrelevant, given that finance is a hundred times bigger.


DJS 20200215

top pic from here, showing the UK's fishing area.

 What I expect the political solution to be is that the many small fishing vessels that operate inshore will have their position changed such that inshore fishing is perceived to be entirely local and British and regulated only by (a possibly changed concept of) quota. Thus the public perception is that the many unfairly treated (that's the message received) are better treated, while where the money is, the big sector and off-shore stuff, remains as is, with European access. That meets both the needs of the many and the (greedy?) needs of the few, which strikes me as what a politician would call win-win.


[1]  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/31/myth-brexit-bonanza-uk-fishing-exposed-no-deal

[2]  researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk › documents › CDP-2017-0256    https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=10&ved=2ahUKEwjwoNeKo9HnAhXyuXEKHfknD-gQFjAJegQIBBAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fresearchbriefings.files.parliament.uk%2Fdocuments%2FCDP-2017-0256%2FCDP-2017-0256.pdf&usg=AOvVaw2FaajUdGFJJBDArqqoUEdq   a useful list of press articles lies at the end of that document.

[3]  https://neweconomics.org/2017/03/who-gets-to-fish leading to  https://neweconomics.org/uploads/images/2017/04/1513-NEF-English-Executive-Summary-Report.pdf

[4]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Individual_fishing_quota      

 https://adventure.howstuffworks.com/outdoor-activities/fishing/fish-conservation/fish-populations/fishing-quota.htm          

 https://marinedevelopments.blog.gov.uk/2017/12/05/december-council-eu-fish-quotas-cfp-uk/

[5]  https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2018/10/11/fishing-quota-uk-defra-michael-gove/

[6]  https://www.ft.com/content/cdf8af0a-40fd-11ea-bdb5-169ba7be433d   

  https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jan/13/city-access-eu-markets-eu-fleets-uk-fishing-rights-brexit

[7]  https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=14&ved=2ahUKEwjayOz8sdHnAhWIh1wKHenqBqYQFjANegQIBBAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fresearchbriefings.files.parliament.uk%2Fdocuments%2FSN06193%2FSN06193.pdf&usg=AOvVaw1F0lkxZd7TjCcQoTpCi-PJ

[8]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fish_farming  You might also read up on cage system fish farming, hydroponics with fish, algal blooms, anti-fouling etc etc. All good material worth knowing a little about. Essay or research on why it is that salmon farming affects the wild population so drastically — one would think them separate populations. That they are not so separated seems to be the central problem. Not least, the weaknesses (diseases, etc) of the farmed fish are what is passed on to the wild ones. With devastating effect on the wild populations.

[9]  , showing the UK


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