Under-10 boats make up more than three quarters of the UK fleet but get a tiny fraction of the fishing opportunity, It’s time they got organised. John Worral reports.

Above: There are 4,255 U-10s in the UK, working from a wide range of locations including Newlyn…

Jerry Percy is executive director of Low Impact Fishers of Europe, the umbrella ‘organisation for organisations’, which aims to provide a clear and coherent voice at EU level for smaller-scale, low-impact European fishers. He used to run the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association (NUTFA), which does a similar thing in a UK context, and is now a member organisation of LIFE.

He’s also done a few decades as a small-scale fisherman himself and so he knows a bit about the travails and frustrations that U-10s have had to endure.

Coastal PO, Pettipher, Percy

Jim Pettipher (left) CEO of Coastal PO, and Jerry Percy, executive director of LIFE.

“The under-10s and what they need? We were talking about this 40 years ago,” he says.

And what they need still boils down to more control over their destiny. 

The figures are well rehearsed. The 4,197 U-10s in the UK comprise about 78% of the national fleet but share just less than 2% by tonnage of the fishing opportunities (quota) – along with the 441 over-10 (non-sector) boats.

The remaining 98% rests with a far smaller number of bigger boats, which are members of one of the UK’s 23 Producer Organisations (POs). And those broad statistics hide a greater imbalance, because among the 301 boats that make up the membership of the 10 English POs, a tiny number hold most of the English quota.

All of which comes down substantially to the influence and benefits – not least, control over quota – which PO membership brings and which the U-10s have always lacked; they can only work with quotas handed down by the Marine Management Organisation. 

It was such a situation that, in 2006, led to the formation of NUTFA, although NUTFA itself was never a PO. All it has been able to do is lobby and campaign for more quota, and be lobbied against by bigger operators who see a threat to theirs.

Its mission, nevertheless, took a significant step forward in 2012, after Jerry Percy made a forensic examination of landing figures and discovered that thousands of tonnes of UK quota – up to 8% of the total – were going un-fished by the POs. And although a lot of that related to species that were beyond the range or capability of the inshore fleet (and many U-10s don’t chase quota species anyway, either some or all of the time), a good part of it wasn’t. It seemed only fair that at least some be re-allocated.

DEFRA agreed and began to do so, but the POs objected, claiming their allocations as their property, and they took the issue to judicial review in 2013.

But they lost, the decision going with DEFRA (by then joined by NUTFA and Greenpeace, the latter sympathetic to low-impact fishing) when Mr Justice Cranston ruled that no-one can own the fish and an under-used fishing quota is merely a missed opportunity.

A year later, Jerry was at a fishing conference in Brixham and met Jim Pettipher, then of Co-operative Futures, and they got talking about U10s and their lack of control and opportunity.

Jim didn’t know much about fishing because his background was in farmers’ co-ops, specifically procurement and the driving down of costs through bulk buying, but he went away and read the judicial review and saw what Jerry had already seen – that although DEFRA had been able to redistribute some unused quota, the U-10s would only gain real control if they were in a PO.

And so, using an outline for an ‘inshore PO’, that Jerry had written previously, the Coastal PO was formed and it is now up and running, with Jim as CEO. 

POs have special status. They are an EU creation, the first ones set up in the 1970s to cover primary food production – agriculture and fisheries – when groups of producers came together to maximise returns through sustainable use of resources and by responding to market changes. Hitherto, fishing POs have been location-specific, concerned with fishing effort – notionally at least – from particular parts of the coast, but the Coastal PO aspires to represent, and administer fishing opportunity for, the entire English inshore fleet.

PO membership carries a number of advantages, not least political clout, because whenever government considers legislative change, it consults ‘the industry’, by which, in a fishing context, it used to mean primarily the POs.

More particularly, POs have delegated quota management powers which, crucially, include the option of retrospective leasing. If a fisher who is not a PO member catches more than his quota, he can be fined heavily by the MMO, but if a PO member fisher does so, the PO can arrange for him to lease quota from another member’s allocation or from quota held by the PO itself under a dummy licence. Coastal PO members will not individually own allocations as such; they will be held by the PO for the collective benefit of all members and apportioned according to local need and demand as agreed by the board. 

By the same token, the system of monthly allocations presently handed down by the MMO to U-10s (and to non-sector boats) lacks flexibility and input from those directly affected. If such allocations were managed by an U-10 PO, they could be actively managed to the benefit of the PO and its members. At the moment, the MMO, which can’t trade quota or do anything with it involving money, can only swap them or give them to someone else. 

A PO is also able to monitor its members’ catches more closely – and thus react more quickly to changes in quota take-up by adjusting effort – than the MMO, to which catch reporting travels through longer channels and from many directions. It is the time-lag in reporting to the MMO which, in part, can lead to monthly allocation reductions – and thus potentially to un-fished quota – because of concern about exceeding national quota.

Other PO benefits include better access to the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), currently the only gateway to government grant funding – until Brexit, anyway – because a PO can achieve up to 100% for projects, which is more than individual operators can do.

And then there is the co-operative procurement aspect; the nascent Coastal PO already being a member of Anglia Farmers, a co-operative originally working within the agricultural sector but now diversified. On things ranging from diesel (AF buys half a million litres a week) and other consumables, to mobile phones, pick-up trucks and other hardware, the economies of scale apply. AF procures what PO members order, sends the invoice for the amount it paid and sends another for its 2% handling charge. 

And with an eye to the future, the Coastal PO is aiming to preserve entry opportunity for young people. As matters stand, with big boat PO members holding nearly all the quota, and much of that actually in the hands of very few – and often through limited companies, with 60% or more in foreign hands – the door is largely closed to new entrants.     

“The inshore fleet’s age profile is rising,” says Jim, “but then with potentially more than  4,000 non-sector under-10s sharing just a tiny proportion of the national quota – and sharing even that with the non-sector over 10s – young people can only see an inshore fleet living off scraps.”

The strategy is to take over management of not only U-10 quota from the MMO but also the non-sector quota (that of over-10s not fishing against an allocation managed by a PO), and so relieve the MMO of that residue of quota administration. Those pools would be managed for Coastal PO members and non-members and that would ensure that all boats still get the same fishing opportunity as at present, and without the need to become a member. But if fishers want the full advantages – to be able to swap or lease quota, have a vote on allocations, get help with marketing, etc – they would have to join. 

“I think taking control of, and protecting, the MMO quota pools is about protecting that fundamentally British opportunity for a young guy who lives in a coastal place and wants to get in to fishing.

“The allocations will be held on a licence for all the members and we are only interested in the U-10 and non-sector quotas. We don’t want to get into bidding wars with other POs or other fishermen, or compete with them.”

So in essence, the core of the Coastal PO mission is to give small-scale, sustainable fishermen a bigger voice in a marketplace too often dominated by industrial-fishing interests, and thereby to protect and sustain the opportunity for small-scale, low-impact operators, both now and in the future. 

“It will be as low cost and light touch as possible” says Jim. “We are, for example, looking at a Coastal PO app to distribute monthly allocations by email or text, and at ways of reporting landings electronically.”

An application for full PO status was made at the beginning of May and the process provides for a decision within three months, although the depth of the preceding discussions with the MMO suggests it could be sooner. The general principle of PO recognition found sympathy from the outset. 

But two particular issues were raised.

The first was that the Coastal PO needed to represent either enough quota – which it doesn’t yet have – or enough fisherman, which it already had, in that well over 200 had signed up by then. 

The second was that it must not abuse a dominant position. Although that is unlikely, because even if all 4,197 U-10s joined the PO, which they won’t, they would still, initially at least, have only that tiny proportion of fishing opportunity, and anyway, by the nature of those members – small inshore boats – they are unlikely to compete with over-10s in a national context. The New Economics Foundation is looking at what slice of the overall quota cake might offer the inshore fleet reasonable profitability and future security, but it is unlikely to impinge significantly on the bigger boats’ share.   

Coastal PO will have a board with a fisherman – or perhaps two – from each sea area to act as a conduit through which fishermen in each respective area can have input into the management of the quota. There is a possibility that, because it will be better able to monitor catches in real time, it will be able to make allocations quarterly rather than monthly, allowing more individual flexibility. 

“The way I see it working,” says Jim, “is that fishermen must represent fishermen in deciding policy. The important thing will be to identify and support – financially, if they are to give up fishing time – the right individuals to argue their local case.

“One difference between Coastal and the other POs is that most of the latter are dealing with large-scale members who land all of their fish to market. While many inshore boats do that too, many also sell direct or through other channels and that will continue but with marketing advice and facilities such as internet selling forums being made available.”

There will be an enforceable code of practice for members to fish sustainably, ‘using the right gear, in the right place, at the right time’, to quote a Coastal PO strap line.

And Coastal could be an overall force for good in the fishing sector, for, as Jerry says, “If we have a PO for U-10s dealing with other POs on an equal footing, to the benefit of both, it will help break down this ‘them-and-us’ barrier that the present system has put between Over-10s and Under-10s.”

And cost? Until recognition, it costs a mere pound to join. But once recognition is achieved, it will be £150 a year plus VAT. And it will work on the co-operative principle, with a dividend if income exceeds expenditure.

It doesn’t sound expensive, and with control over quota, the benefits could be transformational. As Jerry says, “It’s about time that U-10s took control of their own destiny, rather than relying on others over whom they have little, if any, control.”  

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