The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Where did all the Fishers go? A Brexit Commentary

Where did all the Fishers Go?

a Comment by Griffin Carpenter, New Economics Foundation


As a fisheries researcher, the ‘Brexit’ referendum on the UK’s membership back in June unexpectedly thrust fishing policy to the front of the political agenda. This was an unusual time for fisheries research, and it was accompanied by a flurry of claims that were widely reported without much scrutiny.

During the referendum campaign, the two claims I heard most often were: 1) that there are foreign vessels in British waters stealing our fish, and 2) that the fishing industry has all but vanished from many coastal communities, leaving behind an economic and cultural vacuum. While it’s understandable to draw a connection between the two claims – and there is some truth behind each claim – it would be a mistake to do so.

The first claim on foreign vessels in British waters has described effectively by other researchers on this blog and elsewhere. Between historic access rights, the division of quota to countries through relative stability, reciprocal access, mobile stocks and foreign investment in the UK fleet, the factors behind foreign vessels are complex, but united in the message that there are good and sensible reasons for why you might see a Dutch or Spanish vessel fishing off the UK coast or docked in port.

The second claim, that fishing activity has declined in many UK ports, has received less attention, and it is unquestionable that many people rooted in coastal communities have observed this decline first-hand during their lifetime. In 1973, when the UK ascended to the EU there were 22,000 fishers. Today, that figure is 12,000. That a decline in port activity is occurring is indisputable, and as fishing policy is EU jurisdiction, it’s easy to understand why all fingers point to Brussels.

Unfortunately, few people remember coastal communities before EU ascension. Going back to the first industry records in 1938 show that there were 48,000 fishers at the time, so the EU clearly didn’t invent employment decline. Historic data also shows that overfishing was rampant for much of the twentieth century around the UK and that declining stocks were already leading to a decline in landings before the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy was in effect.

Like many industries, the fishing sector has undergone technological transformation with capital replacing labour at sea and vessels growing in size while decreasing in number. This general transformation of the industry is clear not only if you look at the UK industry over time, but also if you compare the UK to other countries. For all the talk about foreign vessels pillaging UK waters, the number of Spanish, Dutch, Belgian, French fishers (or whoever the villain of the day is) has declined at a similar rate of about 2% a year. Iceland and Norway, regional neighbours that manage their fisheries outside of the EU, have also seen similar declines.


This perspective offered through a longer historical and wider geographical focus isn’t to dismiss the issue of declining fishing activity in ports. Coastal communities in the UK do face more economic hardship than the rest of the UK and the cultural impact of a disappearing port is undeniable. Yet the diagnosis of the problem affects the prescription.

A push to raise fishing quotas, ditch environmental regulations, or construct new aquatic borders will not protect employment in fisheries – at least not for very long. Instead, changes to how fishing access is allocated and ensuring the representation of small-scale fishers in industry organisations could go a long way to meeting the government’s objective to rebalance fishing activity to support the small-scale fleet. The trend in fisheries ownership leaving coastal communities should also be addressed – we need a system where fishers and local communities have really taken back control of their livelihood. Some of these issues were discussed in the recent series of cfooduw blogs on catch shares.

How Brexit will pan out is unclear. Right now, the various trade-offs to negotiate, such as access to waters versus access to markets, are beginning to emerge – although the EU may not be keen on negotiating a bespoke deal at all. It has even been suggested that major reforms to the UK-EU relationship are unlikely to take place for at least a decade. Yet, as many of the changes previously mentioned are the result of national policy, there is no need to wait on the outcomes of Brexit. Actions can be taken today that use the current focus on fisheries policy to bring sustainable employment to coastal communities.

Griffin Carpenter is an Economic Modeller at the New Economics Foundation. A full list of his publications can be found here. You can follow him on twitter here.

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6 Responses

  1. It is interesting to see Griffin quickly come to the conclusion that “there are good and sensible reasons for why you might see a Dutch or Spanish vessel fishing off the UK coast or docked in port”. He seems to suggest that due to reciprocal agreements, we are all helping one another out and you may as well see a huge factory trawler from the UK a stones throw from the Dutch coast as much as the other way around. I think closer examination might suggest that the gains from EU agreements are stacked in favour of those from across the water from the UK.
    I skipper a Shetland trawler and have many times tried to follow the route from local association, through Scottish devolved Government, through Westminster sometimes, with policy that we wish to have changed to make it better for us. Many times so we can remain viable within EU agreed rules. I came to see that agreements once signed off in EU, are about as easy to change as it would be to alter the worlds tilt on its axis. When small concessions to impossible rules are treated as some huge victory, when quotas of an abundant stock are cut and a scarce stock are increased, we are told we are wrong and the EU is right. When we are told that the EU is great for us and we are simply too thick to see it, that if only instead of contributing to tax revenues, we could see bigger picture, that we would realise how important it is to remain in the current system. This is simply wrong and change has to come.
    There is no evidence to suggest that the UK being at table with Norway and EU when agreeing future fishing deals will be damaging to stocks or that the UK team will have all the diplomacy of Donald Trump negotiating an immigration deal with Mexico. There is however a very good argument to be made that those who are affected most by fisheries agreements, should have a seat at the table and have a right to say no to deals which they see as unworkable or unfair. Self governance and the tools to change sometimes unintended consequences from legislation is no small matter.
    Is it only me who sees these arguments put forward by Griffin and his like as more for before the Brexit vote? The Country voted for change and I suppose that it wasn’t 17 million fishermen who swung the leave victory. It is time for people like Griffin to help in formulating new post Brexit fisheries. All they can do at the moment is keep telling us how wrong we are to think that things will be better out. That really doesn’t matter now as were heading that way whether we like it or not, we must embrace the change and make sure that it works for fishermen, for stocks, for EU relationships, for markets and even for fishery economists.

  2. Hey James, good to see you around these parts.

    You’re right, I was very brief with my treatment of foreign vessels. I did this because other blogs on cfooduw (and elsewhere) have tackled that particular issue and I decided to focus on the second issue I’ve heard a lot during the campaign. You’re also right that reciprocal access is not evenly balanced in practice (not even close) but note there are reasons for this state of affairs, with historical fishing patterns being the most important.

    While not directly related to this blog, I have to disagree with your point about quota negotiations. There is actually quite a lot of evidence to suggest that the UK being at the table with Norway and the EU would damage fishing stocks. In fact, the quota-setting process is my greatest worry about post-Brexit fisheries.

    To be clear, quota-setting in the EU is far from perfect. Last year I published an article in Marine Policy looking at the quotas agreed by the EU compared to ICES advice. Frequently, as we all know, quotas become an opportunity for fishing ministers to return home claiming a “victory” for their fleet of more quota than was advised. Over the last 15 years this excess quota averages 20% above ICES advice, but the trend is thankfully downward, actually more or less in line with the simultaneous reduction in overfishing. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but in the same study we also found that quotas set jointly with third countries like Norway, the Faroes and Iceland are set even further above scientific advice. This makes sense if you think about it. For EU members an agreement on quotas must be reached, but in the quota negotiations with third countries, any party can leave the room and set a unilateral quota as high as they want. I’m sure you’re aware of some of the prominent examples over the past years of quota negotiations breaking down and everyone setting their own preferred quotas.

    That the UK sees this opportunity as appealing is understandable, but from the perspective of sustainable fisheries this is very worrying, especially as the UK will continue to share nearly every (save some Nephrops stocks) with the EU. Indeed the key lesson of natural resource economics is that individual actors have an incentive to overexploit a common resource unless structures are designed to remove this ability. The EU, for all its faults, has proven a more effective structure in this regard.

    But back to the blog. I was attempting to answer the question “where did all the fishers go?” as it’s a question I’ve heard asked a lot, just as it’s a trend many people in coastal communities have witnessed first-hand. It’s not clear to me if this is a pre-Brexit or post-Brexit question to tackle, but I’m of the opinion that in order to shape the best fisheries policy in the years to come, we need to understand what changes are taking place in the industry and why.

  3. It is not good enough to extrapolate from the Iceland, Faroe mackerel grab in 2010, that future quota setting post Brexit will be detrimental to stocks. Indeed despite the quotas being set too high in 2010 during that one off negotiation we are looking at a 14% uplift in mackerel for 2017. As with the prophets of doom who predicted a cod collapse the setting of quota higher than ICES advice didn’t lead to a North Sea holocaust, only more jobs and income. To say that in future quotas will be pushed irresponsibly high with the UK moving from the lobby to decision table, a nation who stand to lose most, (it is the UK territorial waters that would lose most) is a leap too far.
    Did the quotas being set too low in past negotiations cause depletion in coastal communities? I think there is evidence to suggest this is true. You have to accept that during the 80’s there was a building programme that increased capacity fishing on NS stocks and led to poor fishing and a long period of fleet consolidation. This happened under the CFP, so no reason to say we could have made worse of the situation from outside the club. Indeed a state under control of its own waters may have had a feeling to ease off. This couldn’t happen under a shared sea where other member states were rebuilding. So a funded building programme to renew fleets took place which then had to be funded to cut back again 15- 20 years later. If this had happened under sovereignty of our own waters, Griffin would wax lyrical about how we can’t be trusted in management.
    Back to real scenarios of what happens when quotas are set too low, there has to be recognition that this leads to discarding. It leads to lost revenue and bad PR as happened when the media took hold of story and led to an EU agreed discard ban. Would we have had the ban outside EU? Quite possibly but maybe we could have had more influence in its wording and implementation to help make it workable. The EU model is to say “You will not catch fish above your quota!” as if by saying it means the problem of over quota catches in mixed fishery will go away. A date is set in stone, and to hell with facts and reality on whether we can fish like that. So off to our politicians we go, our suits on and arguments so well entrenched by experience we don’t need to write them down. Now what do we find out from our elected officials sitting in parliaments set up to make our laws? That they aren’t set up to make laws! No, we must know that the decision has been made in Brussels and no matter how much we see your argument the MP’s say, there is nothing we can do. I feel that something is wrong when we head for a cliff and the driver can’t put on the brake because the decision he would require to make this happen is out of his hands.

    It is clear to me that post Brexit, we won’t need to do too well to beat the undemocratic, unaccountable shambles that is the CFP.

  4. Hey James,

    I’m not sure where the confusion has come from, but our study compared ICES advice with all available quotas from 2001-2015, not just the 2010 mackerel example you’ve mentioned here. The results show that TACs set with countries outside of the EU depart from ICES advice to an even greater extent than those quotas set among EU members. The prospect of the UK becoming an independent party and threatening to leave the negotiations creates a greater risk of overfishing.

    On the building of fleet capacity in the 1980s, yes, I would certainly say that was a mistake. What I can’t say is whether the UK outside of the CFP would have built the fleet up to a greater or lesser extent. We have moved on though, and the broad consensus for a couple decades now is that fishing pressure should be reduced. Whether fishing capacity should be reduced bring us back to some of the issues discussed in blog.

    So yes, the EU has made many mistakes in managing fisheries, but the two relevant questions answer are: 1) what would have happened in a counterfactual scenario with the UK outside of the CFP? and 2) given that we can’t change history, what bearing do these mistakes have on future management?

  5. I think question one is not really important. It’s good to see you think of question 2, which shows that sneering and looking down on leave decision will inevitably give way to acceptance and planning ahead.
    I look forward to the opportunity to have real influence in decisions which affect us who actually go to sea. Those who want to commentate from the sidelines can continue to do so.

  6. James Anderson says that he looks forward to having real influence in decisions about fishing policy. A perfectly understandable ambition, but does he really think that it will happen under those who are leading the Brexit negotiations ? Foreign Minister Johnson …. Brexit Minister Davis …. Trade Minister Fox … and possibly Prime Minister Rees-Mogg ?
    I would hesitate to join any campaign led by generals like those.

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