IN the 1950s, Hull and Grimsby were the largest fishing ports in the world. Distant water vessels brought to the towns not just fish but wealth, jobs and a thriving community. This was the same right along the East Yorkshire coast: Whitby, Scarborough and Bridlington had whitefish fleets numbered in the hundreds.
The Cod Wars struck the first blows to the Yorkshire fleets. Hull and Grimsby’s distant water fishing fleets all but collapsed. This was echoed a generation later in Bridlington, Scarborough and Whitby, with a decline in vessel numbers associated with the failures of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
Now, it is the Bristol Channel fishing industry that has undergone an overnight collapse akin to that seen in Humberside six decades ago.
There is genuine perplexity across the fishing industry about why, at a time when fishing pressure across all the main species groups in the North East Atlantic has been dramatically reduced and stocks are rapidly rebuilding, we face such drastic quota reductions.
Once again it is politics, not fish left in the sea, which is destroying our fishing communities. This time it is an ill-conceived policy to reach Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) across all fisheries by 2015 that is to blame.
MSY is a theoretical measure of the catch that can be taken annually from a stock consistent with its highest sustainable long-term yield. Fishermen have nothing against high yield fisheries. Why would they? But the headlong rush to reach MSY, driven by a naïve political agenda, is resulting in massive cuts to fishing quota – up to 60 per cent in some places. Paradoxically, MSY is a measure of economic efficiency but it is not economically efficient to bankrupt the fleet to get there.
This policy has the very real potential to destroy coastal communities right across the UK. The small-scale fisheries in the Bristol Channel have been an early victim of the rush to MSY, as a dramatic reduction in landings made quotas in the region unmanageable.
And it isn’t just fishermen themselves who suffer. The main local fish processor in the Bristol Channel, which had run successfully for 37 years, has been forced to close overnight.
While this may sound like doom and gloom, the truth is the industry is on its way to a stable footing. In some ports fishermen have diversified in order to survive and where once whitefish was king, now shellfish reigns supreme.
So much so in fact that Bridlington is now the largest shellfish landing port in England, grossing in excess of £5m annually. Across Yorkshire confidence is rising, as seen by the launch of a brand new 26m trawler last year by a Whitby fishing family. This investment comes on the back of positive stock signals reflecting the effect of management measures over the last decade.
In the face of the improved conservation status of many of our commercial fish stocks, the decision to savagely cut quotas is all the more perplexing. Had these proposals been the result of a crisis in fish stocks they would be plausible. But that simply isn’t the case. There is also a direct contradiction between concerns expressed by green organisations for notional small-scale fisheries and the lobbying activities of those same organisations at European level for an “ambitious” MSY timetable, which could well lead to the demise of a range of actual small-scale fisheries.
So what is the alternative? Even within the rigid CFP framework, Ministers do have some scope to balance out the more extreme effects of the MSY timetable by setting quotas at a level that would allow the viability of fleets and the connected industries, thereby avoiding the unacceptable human costs of a repeat of the Bristol Channel catastrophe.
It will take political courage to face down those in the green lobby and their friends in the media, apparently oblivious to the human costs of the policies they have largely been responsible for. It will take international co-operation. It will take a deeper understanding of the consequences for fishing businesses and fishing communities.
And yet, a rational, balanced and proportionate fisheries management approach would continue the climb towards high yield fisheries without bankrupting our fleets: an outcome fishermen, environmentalists and politicians could all rejoice in.
The Yorkshire fleet will never return to its halcyon days before the Cod Wars. However, the local industry has shown remarkable resilience and it continues to be a key part of our coastal communities. Hull and Grimsby especially remain the focal point of fish processing in the UK. This should be a time for celebrating success and the rebuilding of fish stocks – including North Sea cod. Instead we find ourselves once again fighting off potentially catastrophic quota cuts.
Barrie Deas is chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations.