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Blue Marine Foundation takes UK Government to court for allowing overfishing

March 24, 2024

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Blue Marine Foundation, a charity dedicated to restoring the ocean to health, has launched legal proceedings over the government’s decision to set fishing opportunities, for more than half UK stocks, at levels exceeding scientific advice.

The charity says this is illegal under post-Brexit fishing law which requires that management of UK fisheries is based on the best available scientific advice and any decisions are made on a transparent basis: it will not only harm the marine ecosystem and the livelihoods of future fishers but is also a grossly irresponsible use of UK national resources.

On 24th January, Blue Marine sent a pre-action protocol letter to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asking the government to admit liability for breaching its legal duty to conserve stocks and for the excessive levels of secrecy around the decision to set fishing opportunities.  Blue Marine has now filed proceedings after the government failed to give satisfactory answers to many questions formally submitted by the charity.

One of the most egregious examples of the government’s irresponsibility is the issuing – on top of UK mackerel quota already agreed – of 24,000 tons of mackerel quota given by Norway to the UK in return for Norway to be able to fish in the UK zone.  This quota, worth £24 million, was negotiated by the UK despite the stock being overfished and was distributed for reasons that remain secret.

Mackerel quota is controversial because while coastal states have agreed the scientific limit, they have failed to agree how to share the catch. Individual nations, including Norway, “self-declare” their own figures, so the overall catch ends up vastly exceeding scientific advice, leading to 400,000 tons more fish being caught than was sustainable in 2023.

Excessive mackerel quota was distributed to the richest part of the UK fishing industry. Many of those companies who benefitted were fresh from a court case where they had sought to protect their “supernormal” profits of 40 to 60 per cent of turnover from Scottish Government measures aiming to secure economic benefits to the wider coastal community.

Some of the companies involved make significant profits for their private shareholders, with one fishing company paying £16m in dividends to its nine directors out of a turnover of £40 million in 2022.   Others are making similar-scale profits.  Tales have emerged in the sector of lavish “mackerel parties” – invitees being transported to large country houses by helicopter for black tie events.

At the same time employment in the fishing industry overall has been in decline: the latest survey of jobs in the UK fishing industry by Seafish in late August 2022 shows that jobs fell from 8,935 in 2016 to 6,557 in 2022, a fall of over a quarter mostly in the inshore sector. The overall number of fishing vessels fell by more than 12 per cent in the same period.

Mackerel is just one of several species including cod, whiting and monkfish where quota has been allocated for this year that is above scientific advice after the annual talks between the UK and the EU before Christmas. In previous years this has led these species to decline precipitously, leaving fishermen (especially small fishing businesses) with diminishing opportunities to earn a living while small segments of the industry reap short-term rewards.

Charles Clover, co-founder of Blue Marine, said: “By continuing to allow exploitation above sustainable limits the government is not only putting fish populations at risk but also everything that relies on them including marine ecosystems and the fishing industry itself.

“In terms of transparency, it is not remotely clear what benefit the public is getting from over-allocating this very valuable resource, the mackerel, to a handful of multi-millionaires. It is time that the distribution of fishing opportunities is reformed to make it clear that natural resources are being distributed according to scientific advice to protect the marine environment and food security and in ways which benefit our struggling coastal communities.”

Jerry Percy, director of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, said: “The government is already reneging on its commitment – in the post-Brexit Fisheries Act – to include social, economic and environmental criteria when determining fishing quota. It is able to ignore organisations like ours because they know we don’t have the resources to challenge them in court. We therefore welcome Blue Marine’s efforts to hold them to account and to shine a light on how these decisions are made and on what basis.

“Blue Marine gives the example of mackerel among a range of stocks that are in trouble.  Current scientific advice states that the sum of quotas for mackerel and the resulting catches have exceeded the scientific advice by on average 44% since 2010 and the risk to the stock is now unacceptably high.  This is no way to ensure the long-term sustainability of fishing businesses big or small. “

Graham Doswell, who fishes from an Under-10-metre boat out of Eastbourne, said: “We support the testing of whether the setting of fishing levels is being done in a way that is compliant with the new Fisheries Act.  Overfishing and lack of transparency are not in our interest, so we support this case. If it isn’t brought, things will never change and there will be fewer of us left to question it in the future.”

Martin Yorwarth, an inshore fisherman based in Canvey Island, Essex, who fishes for herring and other species in the North Sea and the English Channel with his 14- metre boat, said: “We would like to see a tide of change in the way quota is managed generally in the UK.  Since Brexit, things have improved for us but I’ve always felt that quota is a national asset and government is the right place to manage it rather than the private sector.  You have to prioritise the inshore fleet over the fly-shooters and factory ships to get the social and economic benefits the country wants.  For what quota they have got for us, in the inshore fleet, the quota managers in the Marine Management Organisation do an excellent job.”

Read Blue Marine Foundation’s report, Poor Management Decimating Coastal Livlihoods.

Read Oceana’s report The State of UK Fish Populations 2023.

Supporting references:

Secretary of State determination of fishing opportunities for British fishing boats.

The UK Government admitted in its settlement with the EU that its agreement would be in excess of scientific advice.

Press release – UK secures £970 million of fishing opportunities for 2024

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