Small-scale fishermen celebrated a landmark victory over industrial scale fishing on Wednedsay, when the high court in London ruled that fishing quotas could be redistributed by the government in favour of smaller vessels.
This leaves the government free to reallocate valuable fishing rights, that have been unused or under-used by the big trawling vessels to which they were originally assigned, to smaller boats. Small scale fishermen argue that their fishing efforts are more environmentally friendly than those of larger industrial scale vessels, and support more jobs at hard-pressed UK ports.
The judgement, following a lengthy legal battle, is the first time this principle has been established in English law. Finding in favour of the small fishermen who brought the action on all three counts, Justice Cranston ruled: “No one can own the fish of the sea.”
He said: “Fish are a scarce resource, and decisions relating to it have important social, economic and environmental implications.”
However, representatives of the industrial scale fishing lobby are getting ready to appeal. There are also likely to be further arguments over how broadly this ruling applies — the high court was considering the specific question of whether unused quota can be reallocated, but this applies to only a small fraction of the UK’s total fishing quota. If ministers were to try to reallocate quota that is used by big vessels, they could face a further legal challenge.
However, the judge made clear that no organisations had rights to quota except under the fishing minister’s annual decisions on how it should be allocated.
Richard Benyon, fisheries minister, said: “The outcome of this court case vindicates the decision I took to reallocate consistently underutilised quota from larger fishing boats to smaller ones who could use it. I will continue to take action to maximise the value of the UK’s fishing quotas and I look forward to working with all parts of the industry to determine the best way we can do this.”
The organisation representing small fishermen, the New Under Ten Fishermnen’s Association, hailed the judgement. They are angry that over 95% of the UK’s quota is allocated to the Fish Producer Organisations, made up of industrial-scale vessels that are often foreign-owned, even though small vessels make up three quarters of the UK’s fleet and supply two thirds of the seagoing jobs.
Jerry Percy of NUFTA said: “This ruling gives the minister the opportunity to review the entire basis of allocating fishing rights and provide a lifeline to the smaller-scale fishermen who are the lifeblood of many coastal communities.”
Greenpeace, which backed NUFTA’s legal battle, urged the government to be bold in protecting small-scale fishermen. Ariana Densham, oceans campaigner at the pressure group, said: “Richard Benyon [fisheries minister] is in a stronger position than ever to wipe the slate clean on decades of monumental mismanagement of fishing quota by successive governments.”
Separately, a key committee of the European Parliament voted for large subsidies for new vessels under reforms to the EU’s common fisheries policy, in a move that angered environmental campaigners.
The European Commission has been trying to reform the policy, which critics say results in overfishing and in the wasteful practice of discarding edible fish at sea, for more than three years. But the powerful fishing lobby, which is of particular importance to Spain and France, has opposed many parts of the deal, and demanded sweeteners – in the form of more subsidies – to agree to elements such as a ban on discarding fish.
On Wednesday, the fisheries committee voted narrowly voted for a reintroduction of subsidies for new fishing vessels and for upgrades to existing vessels. Green groups said this would only maintain the oversized European fleet and result in further overfishing.
However, that position could be reversed in a future vote by the European parliament on the long-running attempts to reform the common fisheries policy.
Charles Clover, chairman of the Blue Marine Foundation, said: “This disastrous vote in the EU fisheries committee today to subsidise the building of fishing vessels again shows that we need to focus on how we manage all this fishing effort, especially around the marine protected areas that are being set up.”
Greenpeace EU fisheries policy director Saskia Richartz said: “Public subsidies are hard to come-by in the midst of an economic slump and this decision will not benefit the public, the economic prospects of the fishing sector, or the recovery of our seas. When fishing grounds are depleted, fishermen use subsidies to cover their losses. But using taxpayers’ money for bigger nets or more powerful vessels will continue to fuel overfishing and leave fishermen trapped in a vicious circle.”
Maria Damanaki, EU fisheries commissioner, made it clear that she was displeased at the way this part of the reforms had been watered down, and her hopes that in a full vote of the EU parliament, the original proposals would be reinstated. She said: “The Commission’s proposal is more ambitious than the position of the majority in the [EU parliament] fisheries committee: it would put an end to the ineffective subsidies of the past, which contributed to overfishing and to the economic decline of the fishing sector. It would get a better return to tax-payers’ money.”
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