The UK's Small-Scale Fishermen Are Struggling to Make a Living
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The UK's Small-Scale Fishermen Are Struggling to Make a Living

Small-scale fishermen make up the majority of the UK’s fishing fleet but have access to just 4 percent of the Individual Fishing Quota, a system intended to prevent overfishing, but that could actually be harming the seabed and local fishermen.
27 April 2015, 10:00amUpdated on 05 May 2016, 5:39pm

We all know the saying: give a man a fish and he can eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he can eat for a lifetime. But what happens when the government decides that the man who can fish shouldn't be allowed to catch enough to make a living?

For fishermen like Graham Doswell, this is the exact dilemma.

Eastbourne fisherman Graham Doswell.

"I'm a fisherman and my father was a fisherman, just like his dad before. I've been fishing since I was a toddler, going to sea with my dad when the weather was good," Doswell tells me as he jumps off his boat after a long morning at sea. "I never really thought about doing anything else, to be honest."

I'm in the East Sussex town of Eastbourne to meet Doswell, who heads up one of the forty-strong, family-run fishing boats that operate from its Sovereign Harbour.

Local and small-scale fishermen like Doswell make up close to 80 percent of the UK's fishing fleet, but reckon they get a pretty raw deal when it comes to the Individual Fishing Quota, having access to just 4 percent of the English allocation.

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The quota system—imposed on commercial fishermen to ensure that no species is overfished at sea—is supposed to keep stocks at a healthy level and hold the fish apocalypse at bay. But for fishermen like Doswell, the quota system is failing.

"Right now, we get the few crumbs left over after everyone else takes their share," he tells me. "We don't even get enough to earn a living wage."

Many blamed their lack of quota and battle for survival on European legislation, the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), a set of rules for managing European fishing fleets and conserving fish stocks. However, the CFP was reformed last year and now requires national governments to prioritise quota for fishing businesses that contribute most to coastal economies, as well as those that fish using low-impact methods.

While we unload boxes of sole from the deck, I ask Doswell if things have been on the up since this change in European law.

"It just hasn't happened," says Doswell, clearly frustrated, as we load up the car. "There's an opportunity here to make life a lot better for the small inshore fleet, but they seem to just be sitting on their hands. They say, Oh yeah, we're doing it, we're doing it, but we've seen sod all and in the meantime. People aren't making ends meet."

As I ride shotgun in a van full of today's catch on the way to a Polegate service station, Doswell tells me life as a fisherman can be "a struggle."

"It's a skilled job—hard work, dangerous, long hours," he says.

Doswell isn't being melodramatic. In the last decade, 94 of the UK's approximately 12,000 commercial fisherman have died at sea, and some reckon it's one of the most deadly jobs in the country. Out on the boat at 7 AM every morning and working six days a week (weather permitting), fishing is a labour of love

But for small-scale fishermen like Doswell, bringing in the catch isn't the whole story. By using methods that have been around for generations, his way of fishing has low impact on the seabed.

"Our fisheries are tailored to have a minuscule bycatch because you have to physically untangle it out of the net," explains Doswell when we arrive back at the harbour, showing me some of the equipment he uses at sea. "Fishing is seasonal. When they move out of our area, we don't chase them. We're using big mesh sizes, being selective."

In short, they don't fuck with the ocean.

It's a far cry from fishing vessels like the Cornelis, a Dutch-owned, 370-foot trawler that gets 23 percent of the English quota all to itself. What kind of impact do vessels like this have on the seabed?

"They use echo-sounding technology to locate fish. Their nets are so big from all the fish they catch that they are too heavy to haul," says Nina Schrank, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace. "Instead the fish are pumped on board and stored before being processed and frozen in the ship's on-board factory."

Boats like the Cornelis can stay out at sea fishing for up to six weeks at a time, using techniques that, while efficient, can resemble "large-scale, unethical slaughter."

READ MORE: The Ethics of Eating Fish That'll Die Pretty Soon Anyway

"The small-scale fleets use methods that have been used for generations; they have low impact on the seabed, while industrial scale vessels are just vacuuming up tonnes of fish indiscriminately, catching whatever gets in their path," says Schrank. "It's an imbalance; the majority of fishermen are sustainable but are on their last legs."

The government's fishing quota isn't just racked up in the hands of massive vessels; it's become a tradable commodity.

"You have these boats with much more quota than they can catch. Some people got government money to decommission boats but the government let them keep that quota," explains Doswell. "People are sitting on more than they can ever use, until people are so desperate that they'll lease it at great expense."

One fisherman at the harbour just spent £1000 on leasing quota from a "bloke behind a desk." As far as Doswell is concerned, this has to change.

"To my mind, fish in the sea are a public resource; they don't belong to me, to you, or to anyone else for that matter," he says. "If you can't catch it, you shouldn't have ownership of it, especially when other people are struggling to make a living. It's unbelievable."

Greenpeace believes that according to the updated CFP, local, low-impact fishermen should receive more fishing quota because they fish more sustainably, have lower CO2 emissions, and provide greater employment opportunities than the industrial-scale fleet.

"The government is currently starving our local, low-impact fleet of fishing quota, sending some of them to bankruptcy or food banks," argues Sarah North, Head of Oceans Campaign at Greenpeace. "It's not just blatantly unfair, it's also unlawful."

It looks like she might be right. Last week, a British High Court Judge granted Greenpeace permission to take the government to court over what they see as the unfair allocation of fishing quota. A full judicial review will be held into the matter.

But this could take months, years even, and Schrank isn't sure that fishing communities can ride it out.

"As one fisherman said to me, We're no longer on our knees, we're in intensive care," Schrank says. "Fishing is a rich part of our history. For some reason, this community has been hung out to dry and the government has done nothing to solve the problem."

Back at the harbour, Doswell echoes these sentiments. "They should put the small fishermen first; those of us that live and work on the coast, families who have done it for generations," he says.

Unless something gives, British coastal towns will lose not only their small-scale fishermen, but stewards of our inland waters and marine conservationists, too.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2015.