Fishy business – in an uncertain world

For someone old enough to remember the Icelandic Cod Wars, yesterday’s suggestion that we require four Royal Navy gunboats to protect our fishing boats and fisheries seemed to be from yester years’ diplomacy. Equally it’s incredible to me that fishermen could scupper a satisfactory deal with the European Union. Hopefully something will be resolved, at the last moment, but whatever transpires it’s important to separate, for the future ecological health of our seas and oceans, the requirements of the fish and marine ecosystems and the economic futures of fishermen and coastal communities.

Too often the debate seems to suggest that the fish in British waters belong to the fishermen. But in taking from nature, whether you harvest brambles, hunt red deer or trawl for haddock and cod, they are not your property until you’ve taken them.  In the first instance they are all part of the natural resources of our planet, yet at the present time there is a marked difference between the conservation management of wild species on land and those which live in the sea. Why, for instance, is the conservation of turtle doves so very different to the conservation of turbot? Not really surprising because the latter live in a habitats that are not in view to the general public. 

When a deal is thrashed out, for it’s too important to fail for both sides, it must be time to have a radical appraisal of the future of fisheries.  The British people have invested heavily in the costs of negotiations for a sector, which accounts for 0.1% of our economic activity.  Surely, when we regain ‘full control’ of our waters, it would be time to really look at the future of the fish and the marine environment. I’ve loved eating fresh fish from my boyhood catching bass and pout in the Solent, and I’ve admired the rugged individuality of the trawler men I’ve met in harbours and on remote islands, knowing that I could never have worked in such a hostile environment. Yet I do have reservations.  

 Anyone working in an extractive industry loves talk of sustainability but now with climate crisis and biodiversity collapse the urgent message is that it has to be more about the sustainability of the planet and not the sustainability of the fishing industry. Only if the first is attained can the second have a long-term future.  It has to be about how can we fish in a way that does not threaten the fish populations themselves but also does not damage the sea bed habitats, harm non-commercial species, from dolphins to flame shells, or leave a legacy of lost non-degradable nets.  

Clearly at least half the sea and oceans require to be protected areas with no fishing allowed, while inshore waters should be for local fishermen using methods that do not damage either local fish stocks nor their living marine environment. A start would be to have no bottom trawling inside a twelve-mile limit, with bays and sea lochs specially zoned for locals. The whole issue of fishing quotas requires taking back into national ownership and redistributed to local fishing communities based in Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland. 

A few summers ago one of my Mediterranean friends was with me at a local harbour and asked me why there were no small fishing boats and why the fish served in the café was more likely to be deep frozen than caught overnight by artisanal means. He was even more horrified to learn that if we had a small fishing boat and we went to sea and caught three boxes of mackerel using hooks and lines, it would be illegal for us to sell them. As a Yorkshire fisherman once said ‘all the mackerel which swim past our coast belong to twelve Scotchmen!’  A quota system beyond belief.

When the Navy gunboats have returned to harbour, and the politicians have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, the future of fishing in our waters must be completely reorganised. Winning a clash with the Dutch and French, does not solve the territorial animosity between our own fishermen, nor the threats to our marine biosphere.