Not such a fishy business: £13k fine for overfishing simply proves quota system is broken

Bay Beach Boat

Last week news that a fisherman, Graeme Searle, was fined more than £13,000 for fishing more than his quota hit the headlines.

Searle is a fisherman for Sole of Discretion, an ethical and sustainable fishing company that we continue to recommend on our site.

The fisherman admitted his guilt and Sole of Discretion does not condone his actions. But the headlines only tell a small part of the story – and not the most important part, which is the unfair quota system that determines how much fishermen are allowed to catch.

The crux of the story, as explained by founder of Sole of Discretion Caroline Bennett, is that Searle was fishing on a boat under 10 metres long. Boats of this size are allowed 4% of UK fishing quota allocation, while 96% is allocated to the bigger boats.

Had Searle been out on his bigger boat, he would have been able to retrospectively lease the necessary quota to cover his four tonne haul – so he illegally pretended he was.

His other option – the legal option – would have been a terrible waste of life and food, simply to throw his catch back into the ocean dead. So, you can begin to understand his dilemma.

Searle caught only 30% of his allocated quota for Pollack in 2017, so landing the Pollack on the wrong boat still didn’t mean he’d breached his annual catch. However, quotas are allocated on a monthly and not annual basis – irrespective of factors such as weather conditions, which impact if a fisherman can even take their boat.

While Bennett does not excuse his actions, she maintains that this story highlights a broken system. Her full response is below, which we are publishing to help raise awareness of the issues and support her quest for a more sustainable fishing system:

“Relatively new as I am to the fishing industry, I now appreciate why the fisheries are in the huge mess they are; nothing is simple when dealing with a shared, wild resource, and ultimately dealing with nature. Nature doesn’t fit neatly into modern business models, and is why our oceans are so depleted of fish.  My aim is to help navigate customers through this difficulty and help them make ethical choices. I believe we are still the only company seriously offering this option at the retail level, and having been in operation for just over two years,  I now appreciate just how complex a challenge I’ve set myself.

One of our fishers was found guilty of falsifying quota records. There is no ostensible defence for his actions in putting fish he caught on one boat on to another boat’s tally, but it is worth highlighting the fact that the vessel he booked the landing to was entitled to have caught the fish in the first place had it been at sea. So it is not such a clear cut case of misdemeanour, though I stress that I am in no way defending his actions.

While his actions are inexcusable, he is a victim of a broken system. He has paid a severe price for what amounted to not being prepared to throw back already dead fish for which there was quota available. He is artificially restricted in his ability to make a living due to a massive imbalance of access to quota on a UK basis through the measly 4% UK allocation to the many under ten metres boats in comparison with the 96% allocated to the bigger boats, who only comprise 23% of the fishing fleet. In addition, there is an imbalance of access to fish also with regard to the disparity between French and English quotas in the area as well.

Perhaps most importantly to portray the unfairness, if he had been a larger vessel then he would have been able to retrospectively lease the necessary quota to cover his overfishing through his PO (producers organisation). This is not an option for the under 10metre boats, so if you can imagine being out at sea, and catching a bumper net of pollack, a reasonable fisher would seek to land this fish rather than throw it back, dead into the sea [we did all vote for a ban on discarding fish after all] and if the system was fair then he could have done so without penalty.

I set out on this journey from a conservationists point of view, and recognise that it is a thin line to tread between allowing fishers to catch what they can and maintaining a balanced ecosystem. Our fisher actually caught only 30% of his allocated quota for Pollack in 2017, so landing the Pollack on the wrong boat still didn’t mean he’d breached his annual catch. Moreover, the small-scale boats only caught a total of 80% of their annual pollack quota in 2017, leaving an unused 167 tons of uncaught fish in the sea. From a conservationists point of view, this is a point worth noting.

Whilst I do not condone the activities for which the fisher was penalised, it should not come as much of a surprise that smaller scale fishermen are forced into this sort of thing by an unjust system underpinned by the unfairness and discrimination in terms of access to quota between large and small vessel operators.

Sole of Discretion remains committed to selling fish that is 100% traceable back to the boat, displaying the method of catch on each and every label, arming our customers with information sufficient to make their own ethical choices. There is plenty of scientific evidence to support our stance that smaller boats have a far lower impact on marine life than the larger vessels do, and for the most part, these small fishers are struggling to maintain a livelihood. Sole offers them a life line and in turn, helps do less damage to the seas.

Redesigning a system post-Brexit which leads to more community and family jobs and enterprises would secure livelihoods and in so doing allow a redistribution of wealth and the ability to build responsibility and lessen corporate dictatorship. Had that been done long ago, the UK might have avoided it’s current political plight. The stakes are comparably high to the health of the sea and the two are intrinsically linked; one requires the other to survive.

We are advocates for positive change and the road to perfection will always have a few potholes along the way. It is important that we make the small-boat model work.

By chance, our longest standing customer, Farmdrop,were on a planned visit as the news was unfolding. Farmdrop spoke with a number of fishers we had arranged for them to meet, and having seen how they work and listened to the difficulties they face as small-scale fishers. Such was their dedication to becoming part of the solution, they ended their trip confirming that they would like us to become their sole supplier of fish. We are so very grateful and privileged to be working alongside such visionaries.

It has not been an easy journey, but we haven’t given up yet, and thanks to amazing companies like Farmdrop, some of these small-scale fishers, caught between a rock and a hard place, are being given the opportunity to help all of us eat fish that has been caught with a lower impact than most others, and that is a challenge worth fighting for.”


Main image: Sebastian Voortman/Pexels

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