This morning I was at the High Court in central London where a historic ruling was handed down on who controls the UK’s right to fish.
An attempt by big fishing firms to protect their decades-long stranglehold on Britain’s fish was resoundingly defeated in court. The judgement gives back control of our seas to the public and the UK government, rather than big industry.
This now clears the way for fisheries minister Richard Benyon to carry out a major shake-up of the quota available to our low-impact, sustainable fishermen.
The case centred on whether the government had the authority to take unused fishing quota from big boats and give it to small boats that would use it. The big vessels claimed the government simply couldn’t do this, because despite originally being given their quota for free, it had become their private property.
The issue of quota allocation has come under intense scrutiny after we exposed how a large chunk of it is controlled by overseas companies who, according to the UK government’s own figures, contribute little or nothing to the UK economy. It makes the outcome of this legal battle even more important.
So in alliance with Nutfa, the organisation that represents small boats in the UK, we managed to join the case. This was to the utter dismay of the big fishing firms represented by the UK Association of Fish Producer Organisations (UKAFPO) who brought the case and who tried every tactic possible to keep us out.
But in the end they couldn’t. And in the end, they were found to be wrong.
The judge agreed with us that fish are a public resource. He said “no-one can own the fish of the sea”, and this includes the big fishing firms. He also said that they have no right to any specific amount of fish year to year.
The big fishing firms claimed the unused quota which the government wanted to take away was worth £1.4 million, yet despite this apparent economic value they didn’t think it was worthwhile to fish. When they couldn’t explain how this figure had been arrived at, the judge criticised it as “purely theoretical”. Meaning it was simply made up.
If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, despite all their sabre-rattling and posturing the big fishing barons have lost on an important point of principle: the government can take unused fishing quota away from them without compensation, because they do not own it.
This case represents a turning point in the history of the fishing industry, and in the context of a new set of EU fishing rules, agreed at the end of May. It provides a golden opportunity for the fisheries minister to really look at what we value in our fishing industry and how important our local fishing communities are to the health and stewardship of the sea, as well as providing jobs and food.
Fisheries minister Richard Benyon must be applauded for standing up to the big fishing quota barons and winning. He has the backing of the High Court, the public, and fishing communities across the country. He has no more obstacles for shaking up the current quota management system and for delivering on his commitment to get a fair deal for small scale, low impact fishermen.
The new EU fishing laws will require the government to allocate fishing quota to those that have environmental and social benefits. The judge in this historic UK case recognised that “fish are a scarce resource and decisions relating to it have important social, economic and environmental implications”.
This is a compelling set of reasons to turn the tide of inequality between the haves and the have nots of the UK fishing industry.
Today was a good day for the oceans, the fish and the fishermen that depend on them. It was a good day too for us all as we get to claim back the fish and seas that others have sought to privatise. But today is just the start.
Now we have to move forward with a reinvigorated vision for Britain’s seas, and build a viable and vibrant future for our coastal fishing communities.