20 February 2018
With a lot of social media traffic on the Fishing News Facebook page and elsewhere, Fishing News sat down with CEO of the NFFO, Barrie Deas, to ask those tricky questions that keep cropping up.
FN: The NFFO took a neutral stance in the referendum. What is the organisation’s current stance on Brexit?
Barrie Deas: The NFFO did take the decision not to intervene in the referendum. And I believe that was the right thing to do. That was because the NFFO is a trade association set up to represent the whole industry in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is not a single issue political lobby group. But all fishermen, along with every adult in the UK, had a vote, and it would have been patronising of us to say which way it should be exercised; although it was always clear that the overwhelming weight within the industry was to leave the EU and specifically the CFP.
Having had the vote, however, the outcome of the referendum opened the door for the UK to be an independent coastal state and to move away from the Common Fisheries Policy, which was structurally designed from the outset to operate to the UK’s systematic disadvantage.
We have made clear to ministers that we now expect them to deliver:
• The UK as an independent coastal state, managing the resources within the UK EEZ responsibly, managing collaboratively where those stocks are shared
• Quotas of shared stocks that reflect the resources in UK waters
• Access to non-UK fleets only when there is a balancing advantage to the UK fishing industry and under conditions applied by the UK
• An exclusive 12 mile zone to safeguard our inshore fisheries
• Trade arrangements with the EU with as few impediments as possible.
My hope is that the UK will, from March 2019, be an independent coastal state. I do recognise the danger that fishing could again be traded away by our own government for other objectives unless it stands up to the EU on fishing. The NFFO is working very hard to persuade government that there would be a terrible political and reputational cost to them if that was allowed to happen.
FN: How realistic is it for a single organisation to try to represent such a diverse industry?
Barrie Deas: Our industry is incredibly diverse. But I see that as a strength, not a weakness.
Different sizes of vessels and different gears are needed to exploit different species in different ecological niches, inshore and offshore. If you think that only your sector counts, then the NFFO is probably not for you. But there are plenty fishermen who see the sense in working together, speaking with a single voice, compromising a little bit to achieve a strong and united organisation. Despite the individualism; the colourful personalities; and the sometimes conflicting, interests; the NFFO has been at the forefront of fisheries policy since 1977. And it is based on a single, simple, idea: that we are stronger if we speak with a single voice. Many other organisations with a range of exotic names and acronyms, now almost forgotten, have come and gone in that intervening period. The difference lies in that single idea of unity, and in the credibility that that brings to the table. And credibility equals influence.
FN: The NFFO has been accused of being financed and controlled by Flagships. Is this true?
Barrie Deas: It is not true. The UK has been in the single market for 30 years and as with many other areas of the economy, it has seen non-UK investment, as some British fishermen have sold their licences and quota to the highest bidder. The result is a UK fleet in which the ownership pattern has changed somewhat and that is reflected in the NFFO’s membership. We have vessels in membership with Dutch, Icelandic, Spanish and Canadian beneficial ownership. But that amounts to less than 10% of our membership in terms of vessel numbers, and under a third in terms of subscription income. Around 2/3rds of our income comes from our services company anyway, so it is a little hard to see that there is any validity in the claim that we are financed and controlled by flagships.
The POs representing these vessels certainly have a seat at the table and we are glad to have them there but a glance at our policies should be sufficient to convince any reasonable person that our Executive Committee is a cross-section of our membership and our policies reflect that. Of course, there will always be people, with their own agendas, who will maintain that we are in league with the devil.
I should also say, that we strongly support the economic link licencing requirements that ensures that the UK economy can expect a proportionate share of the benefits associated with UK quota, even when some of that fish is landed abroad.
FN: How is policy arrived at in the NFFO?
Barrie Deas: We very rarely vote. Generally, our Executive Committee, which is drawn from all parts of the industry, listens carefully to all viewpoints and tries to navigate a course that keeps everybody, moderately, if not completely happy. In a way, the NFFO is a microcosm of government which is also pressured from all directions. Maybe that is why we have been influential and well regarded by successive ministers over the years. No minister wants to hear a cacophony of voices. If the industry can get its act together to speak with a single voice, we can be immensely influential.
FN: Pulse fishing is very controversial at present. What is the NFFO’s view?
Barrie Deas: I think that it is true to say that our Executive Committee is split between those who think that it should be banned immediately and those who think that new methods of fishing always attract criticism and we should not rush to judgement until the science is available to take a balanced view. But everyone around the table strongly supports our initiative to protect some of the most sensitive areas with voluntary spatial agreements with the Dutch industry – whilst the science and the political machines decide the bigger fisheries policy issues. The issue is not so much the effects of electricity (which hinges on what the scientists tell us about respective impacts) but that pulse fishing has led to a major spatial shift with increased effort by the Dutch fleet in places like the greater Thames estuary. Getting the fishermen most affected into a room with some charts to thrash out an agreement to avoid the most sensitive areas seemed to us like a sensible thing to do. It still does.
FN: Where do you see our industry in 10 years’ time?
I think that we are at a fork in the road. If our fishing opportunities, post Brexit, reflect our new legal status as an independent coastal state, we would have the economic basis to regenerate our those of our fishing communities. Many have been badly affected by the CFP, which has proved to be an over-centralised, largely dysfunctional, approach to managing diverse and complex fisheries.
If, during the transition period and beyond, the EU is allowed to retain equal access to UK waters and the status quo on quotas, it is difficult to see what the difference between the UK and those West African countries who have in the past been tied into an asymmetric and essentially exploitative relationship with the EU. The EU concedes that it currently takes four times the value of fish from UK waters that the UK takes from the EU sector. It is preparing to use the UK’s desire for a transition period and later, a free trade agreement, to force the UK to remain in that essentially exploitative relationship. That looks and smells very like blackmail or extortion. The UK would have to be mad, or craven, to accept that and I don’t think that it will.
Norway and other countries that we share stocks with, are more than ready to work with us as an independent coastal state, and I think that is where we will end up. Only if fishing is sacrificed by our own government to secure better trade arrangements with the EU could that future be snatched away from us. The issues surrounding trade and the issues surrounding fishing rights are very different. That they are bound together now reflects two things: the ambush by the then EC member states on fishing in 1973, and the then UK Government’s decision to sacrifice fishing to secure entry to the EEC. Could fishing be sacrificed again? Yes, it could. That is the danger. But the politics are very different this time round. There is huge support within the country for a fair deal for the UK fishing industry and fishing is recognised as a totemic issue by all sides.
So, in 10 years’ time, we could be witnessing a resurgence in our coastal communities – or we could still be tied into an imbalanced, flawed, incoherent and deeply exploitative relationship with the EU. The choice lies with the British cabinet and the decision time is imminent.