Sir Robert Goodwill, the recently appointed chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee, has written formally to Defra minister Victoria Prentis with a number of committee recommendations relating to the UK Seafood Fund.
The letter, written after the committee had heard evidence over two sessions from a variety of fishing industry representatives, including the chief executives of the NFFO and SFF, recommends that the size of the fund be increased by 50% to £150m.
Robert Goodwill writes: “At the time of our hearing, Defra had yet to determine which projects to approve or even, as your official highlighted, the size of the funding pot for the first round, so it is not clear how much IS [Infrastructure Scheme] funding will be left for future funding rounds.
“Should this high level of interest be maintained in the two further funding rounds for the IS, there is a risk that the scheme will be heavily oversubscribed. This could mean that many projects would have to be turned down on the basis of the funding available, rather than their suitability under the relevant eligibility criteria.
“Given the importance of ensuring our wild catching sector can reap the benefits from the additional quota share, plus the relative size of the UKSF [UK Seafood Fund] against other examples of government funding support – such as the new Environment Land Management scheme for England worth around £2.4bn a year – we believe that an additional £50m over three years to support the UK’s wild catching sector would provide excellent value.”
The UK Seafood Fund was established in December 2021 and has been extended to run until March 2025 – a cut-off date that the committee says should be further extended as ‘it is important that the fund is designed in line with the sector’s needs first and foremost, rather than Whitehall’s internal timescales’.
Whilst supportive of the fund and its aims, the committee’s letter highlights difficulties with timescales, quoting written evidence provided by the Western FPO of a 14-week tender process for a funding window that was open for just 11 weeks, saying: “The fact these issues exist are indicative of the evidence we received that Defra had not incorporated feedback from the sector when designing the UKSF’s funding rounds. The views of the sector must be listened to and acted upon if the UKSF is to realise its full potential.”
The letter also calls for the government to use the fund to improve the fuel efficiency of vessels, arguing that this will help fishers with increased fuel prices while also delivering environmental benefits.
Commenting on the letter, Robert Goodwill said: “I couldn’t agree more with Minister Prentis that we need to prepare the fishing fleet to catch the extra quota that is coming our way. It follows that the fishers braving all weathers to catch those fish must be prioritised when allocating the new funds.
“Our fishers must be given every help to maximise their opportunities. That means increasing the size of the pot and ensuring there is enough time to apply for the new money.
“If smaller operators need help filling out what are sometimes fearsomely complex application forms for these funds, we think they should be given that help.”
Western FPO manager Chloe North, one of the industry representatives who gave evidence to the committee, welcomed the letter, telling Fishing News: “It is so refreshing that MPs listened carefully to our submission.
“It is fantastic that there is a Seafood Fund that we can use to improve science, training and infrastructure. However, as the MPs’ letter points out, certain aspects of the fund could be improved to increase its effectiveness for the industry.
“The overarching aim of improving fuel efficiency of vessels is a good one, but with the current fuel crisis nobody has the spare cash for the 50% match funding required, let alone the time spent not fishing and the crew wages that need to be covered.
“These are barriers to accessing this money that really need to be considered going forward.” Fisheries consultant and ex-CFPO chief executive Nathan de Rozarieux, who has provided support to vessel owners across the country with their grant applications over many years, welcomed the comments by Robert Goodwill about streamlining the system. He told FN: “The report by the committee is a great start, and we should welcome the fact that MPs have listened carefully to fishermen.
“Any streamlining of the application process can only be welcomed. But most of all we need a clear plan and strategy to guide these investments. Otherwise it’s scattergun economic sticky plasters all over the place, with limited overall benefit.
“The real long-term value of these funds to the industry will not be fully realised until we have a better long-term plan for how we fish our resources, and for the port and processing infrastructure that will be needed for this.”
This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here.