Calamity has struck some of the most sustainable fishing skippers in the south west of England with an announcement by the government slashing quota for pollack, one of the mainstays of the smaller scale fleet for 2024, effectively forcing some to consider having to sell their boats.
Ed Baker, Chief Executive of the Plymouth Fishing and Seafood Association said, ”many of our smaller boats and especially those using some of the most selective methods of fishing have seen their livelihoods taken away with only a couple of week’s notice over the Christmas period. Fishermen had spent considerable time and money gearing up for the new season and now have thousands of pounds of nets that are unusable and not even the funds to put them into store. In ports and harbours around the south west, fishermen are at their wit’s end as to where to turn to maintain fishing activity and income based on methods that date back hundreds of years. If government want them to stop fishing then they need to be compensated”.
The government’s fisheries policy arm, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] had set catch limits well above scientific advice for some years but at a stroke and on the back of scientific advice that the scientists admit is weak, have effectively made pollack a bycatch only stock that prevents those boats that rely on it actually fishing for it. With few if any other fishing opportunities open to these boats, the future is bleak.
Jerry Percy, Director of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, representing the under ten metre fleet said, “The traditional rod and line fleet are the hardest hit in this respect. The most sustainable and selective method of fishing, with no bycatch and no dead discards has been decimated through no fault of the fishermen concerned. At the same time, the pollack netting sector will be forced to use smaller mesh nets for other species that will inevitably and perversely result in more pollack discards than in their traditional fishery.”
Fishermen’s leaders are calling for short term compensation in line with similar support mechanisms available to farmers and a decommissioning scheme to allow some fishermen to leave the industry altogether. The French government has already introduced a compensation scheme for their pollack netters and a limited ‘survival’ quota for their handliners.
Baker continued, “The UK, post EU exit has its own Fisheries Act 2020 that requires government to include social, economic and environmental criteria when allocating quota and to support sustainable and selective fishing practices. There is no evidence of this being followed to date and in fact their response to the pollack situation is the exact opposite of what is required. We are committed to sitting down with the government to work to maintain this vital component of so many coastal communities around or coast”.
Percy concluded, “DEFRA has to face up to the results of decades of a failure of fisheries management through being able to blame Europe for its shortcomings. If there was ever a time for our government to stand up and work together to keep vital fishing businesses, the land based companies that support them and the coastal communities they sustain going it is now – or never”.
Call For Action
The SW fishing industry and NUTFA are calling on the government for two things:
1. An urgent re-evaluation of the modelling and reasoning behind issuing a ‘by-catch only’; ruling for pollack.
2. We are asking for financial support for those fishermen who, overnight, with little to no warning, have lost their livelihood in the same way that government has done for farmers either via a compensation or decommissioning scheme to ensure the social and economic sustainability of our food production systems.
By providing short term support for those fishermen directly affected you will ensure that the management measures implemented in January do not have the unintended consequences of not only increasing pressure on the stocks they are designed to protect but also of putting arguably the most sustainable element of the inshore fleet out of business. It will also ensure that there is still a sustainable inshore fleet left to continue fishing when stocks recover.
The situation with the pollack fishery and those that rely upon it is as follows:
- The 87% cut in available pollack quota for the UK is imminently close to causing some fishermen to go out of business.
- Under-10m fishermen were given less than 2 weeks-notice of a reduction in catch limits, from 10t to 100kg and for this to be for by-catch only.
- The traditional inshore static net and rod and line fishery are the hardest hit by this decision, but these are some of the most sustainable fisheries in the UK, highly selective with limited by-catch and no dead discards.
- The inshore static net fishery for pollack runs January-March and comprises up to 80% of the annual income for some of those involved.
- There was no time for fishermen to effectively diversify with imminent bills for insurance, moorings / berthing and mortgages normally paid for from pollack landings in January.
- Some have been left with £20k of pollack nets (prepared in December) that now need to be destroyed or put in storage, but there is no money for the storage.
- Short term diversification options include fixed net fisheries for red mullet, mackerel, sole and hake but all these fisheries have their difficulties and varying degrees of pollack by-catch.
- Ironically these alternate fisheries also require smaller net sizes than used for pollack so by-catch of pollack will be high.
- Some vessels have already caught their monthly allowances for pollack and are caught by the Landing Obligation [LO] Catch22; it is illegal to discard and illegal to land more than their allowance.
- The LO however is currently not enforced and vessels will inevitably discard the small pollack and keep those that fetch the highest price. This leads to increased mortality well above the by-catch allowance.
- The hake fishery is 100nm offshore and an under-10m vessel venturing that far are competing with larger 15m vessels in the same weather conditions at considerable risk for limited reward.
- The sole fishery is barely viable at this time of year with costs matching revenue.
- Vessels are also reportedly now forced to target other by-catch only stocks such as whiting and bass in an attempt to make ends meet.
- Some fishermen have already been forced to get jobs ashore and are considering selling their vessels but given the situation selling a vessel may be impossible.
- Fisherman’s Associations are receiving requests for information on mental health support.
- For the rod and line fishermen, there is only one other viable species, bass, but this is only available to those with a bass entitlement and will be closed February to March and later in the year catches will be significantly reduced due to the recent presence of Bluefin tuna [BFT].
- Some commercial rod and line fishermen also make up to 80% of their income from pollack. They are attempting to diversity by buying nets, but this will put further pressure on the limited available species as described above.
- Converting a rod and line vessel to a net vessel is both time consuming and also prohibitively expensive.
- BFT offers an alternate income source for those permitted to access it but the Defra ‘lottery’ for access is currently prohibitive for many.
- There is currently an unregulated and extensive recreational fishery some of which are advertising on social media the start of a good pollack season!
Call for the UK government to urgently re-examine the science behind issuing a by-catch only quota and consider allowing a reduced targeted fishery with increased management measures.
- Section 25 of the Fisheries Act requires the government to incentivise sustainable fishing practices. There is as yet little, if any, evidence that this is happening.
- A ‘by-catch only’ quota does not incentivise sustainable practice without additional management measures and enforcement of the Landing Obligation. It allows for continued targeting up to the by-catch limit for those with quota and for those without, they cannot then sustain genuine by-catch in alternative fisheries which leads to dead discards and illegal landings.
- There are alternative scientific models provided by the ICES working group that allowed for a limited but targeted fishery and these should be urgently reconsidered.
- We are told that the French have permitted their handline fleet a targeted fishery and are compensating their netters.
- Call on the government to act immediately to put measures in place to support these local inshore sustainable fishermen. We are asking for a graduated compensation scheme and a decommissioning scheme based on previous documented reliance on pollack. Without compensation two things will happen:
- Fishermen, and the range of businesses they support will go out of business resulting in many coastal communities, already suffering higher levels of deprivation than their inland equivalents becoming poorer.
- Fishermen will do the best they can to diversify and in some cases will be forced to work between the rules. This will lead to increased pressure on other stocks and increased pollack mortality above what has been deemed ‘safe’.
If a de-commissioning scheme were implemented the government could retain the licences and then issue them as part of an initiative to incentivise sustainable fishing and support new entrants when the pollack has recovered.
Why compensating fishermen for not fishing in certain ways or areas is fair and the precedents that exist:
- Farmers are being given ‘decommissioning’ funding. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-commits-to-support-farmers-who-wish-to-leave-the-industry: “Farmers who wish to leave the industry will be supported by a new Government scheme which provides a lump sum payment, allowing them to exit the sector in a managed way.”
- Farmers are incentivised financially to deliver sustainable practices : Environmental land management in 2024: details of actions and payments – Farming (blog.gov.uk).
- Farmers are subsidised to underpin UK food security. Fishermen are equally as important, and in fact produce food with a much lower carbon footprint than terrestrial equivalents and it is essential they are equally supported.
We are also asking for an explanation as to what fishermen are supposed to do if they have by-catches of pollack greater than their monthly catch limits?
- To date the response from Defra as to what to do if experiencing by-catch over the monthly limit is “Fishers are obliged to land all catches of quota species…The bycatch quota was set to cover all such catches in 2024. We’d expect fishers to ensure they remain within those limits. That includes changing fishing patterns and avoiding unwanted catches.”
- Fishermen are diversifying away from pollack but still experiencing by-catch due to the smaller net sizes in the other fisheries. If they follow the advice above the only other option is to stop fishing. If Defra expect fishermen to stop fishing, then they must compensate them for doing so!
Finally, and just as importantly we are asking Defra and the MMO to genuinely work collaboratively with the fishing industry to put measures in place to ensure the sustainable management of fish stocks and fishermen. This means:
Creating management measures that genuinely help the stock recover, such as closed periods and an increased MCRS, as opposed to ineffective by-catch only quotas.
- Putting support packages in place along-side the management measures to ensure those affected by the loss of their main fishery can stay in the industry and contribute to the nation’s food security by targeting healthy stocks once they are recovered.
It is worth noting that the Pollack fishery is not the only example of mismanagement and the lack of a collaborative approach by government. Lemon sole in the Eastern Channel was until this year a non-quota stock.
- With no prior warning however the non-sector fleet were told on the 21st December that they would be restricted to 50kg a month where previously they had catches of over 500kg.
- The allocation has since been increased to 200kg (thank you to the MMO’s quota managers) but this allocation is not guaranteed and could be reduced depending on uptake and lobbying by larger vessels.
- The allocation of quota to sectors in the UK is based on a reference period 2018-2022, this includes the COVID year (and therefore biases bigger business) which Defra had previously said would not be included in reference years.
- Since the presence of foreign owned fly-seine vessels have removed large amounts of fish from the Channel, Lemon sole is one of the few remaining viable fisheries for inshore vessels in the Eastern Channel.
- The introduction of tight quotas with no warning will lead to similar concerns as discussed for pollack.