Fishing sell-out serves big monopolies

By Simon Korner

The Brexit deal has exposed Boris Johnson’s false claim that Britain would gain total control of its fishing after Brexit. In fact, the deal has only given Britain an increased 25% share of the fish within its waters. It’s a far lower figure than the Tory promise of 80%.

The Daily Express (Dec 28th) reported that Britain’s fishing industry was “furious” with the deal, believing the government had “caved in”. But the fishing industry – worth £950 million a year (2019 figures) – is not a monolithic bloc in the way the Daily Express suggests. Instead, there is a sharp divide between an oligopoly of giant companies and thousands of smaller boat owners. Fishing for Leave says the big companies do not speak for the industry as a whole.


65% of the UK’s fishing quota is controlled by 25 families on the Sunday Times Rich List. 20% of the UK quota is controlled by big Spanish, Dutch and Icelandic companies. Medium-sized firms control around 10%. The 4,760 small fishing boats (under 10 metres in length), which make up over three quarters of the fishing fleet and employ half of all fishing workers, control just 2% of Britain’s quota.

It was the EU, combined with British government policy, that speeded up the concentration of British fishing. Before the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy was introduced in 1983, the sea could be fished up to other countries’ territorial waters – though the 1970s cod wars between Britain and Iceland revealed growing rivalries over fishing. When the EU introduced a quota system in 1983, it effectively privatised fish stocks within the seas around the single market – a licence for an allocated quota was required to be allowed to fish. The EU national quotas were based on a country’s average catch sizes during the previous decade. In Britain’s case its national quota was low because most fishing had been off Iceland in this period and outside what became the EU zone, one of Britain’s recurring complaints ever since.

It was Tory policy to apportion Britain’s national quota boat by boat and to encourage a trade in quotas. But it was the Blair government in 1999 that radically deregulated the market for quotas. Licences to fish were now made freely transferable rather than attached to particular vessels. Quotas became a traded commodity in their own right, divorced from fishing, with investors snapping up quotas to sell on.

One Whitby fisherman said: “It’s all investors now. I’m fifth generation. My eldest son, who takes the boat out is sixth generation, and we are having to go to these people cap in hand.”

Emma Cardwell a researcher at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment, calls the 1999 deregulation, introduced under the banner of conservation of fish stocks, “the biggest property grab since the Norman invasion”.

The inshore fishing boats had already suffered from competition from larger, long-distance British trawlers, which harvested fish more cheaply off Iceland than was possible in inshore UK waters. And they suffered again from the EU quota system – their depleted inshore average catch sizes yielded them a tiny quota. Meanwhile, European boats, which had been catching more in British coastal waters than the UK inshore fleet, gained the lion’s share. Unlike British fishing, other European countries did not deregulate their industries as radically. Taking advantage of the UK’s liberalised sector, British trawler owners sold their boats to Spanish and Dutch companies, or to brokers who sold them on. With the sale of the boats went the sale of the attached quotas. This practice by European fishing companies on ‘quota hopping’ – buying British trawlers and their fishing rights - was eventually challenged by the UK government, but was upheld under EU law in several significant court cases.

The major UK fishing companies saw the Brexit deal as a way of cutting out their European rivals from British fishing waters, while claiming they were acting out of patriotism. At the same time, these firms have been fiercely resistant to any redistribution within the UK fishing industry post-Brexit – on the grounds that big firms should be rewarded for their investments over the past twenty years. They argued that any extra quotas for the smaller boats or for new fishermen should come, not from the existing quota distribution, but from an enlarged fishing quota post-Brexit.


While the fishing oligarchs have done well under the EU’s quota system, the inshore boat owners have not, and are unlikely to benefit from the Brexit deal that has failed to win a decisively larger national share of fishing. With the big firms refusing to redistribute the existing quota, the decline of UK coastal fishing will continue. And the chances of a rise in Britain’s 25% share once the five year transition period is up are slim.  If Britain tried to reduce EU fishing in British waters the EU would impose stiff tariffs on Britain’s fish exports on which UK fishing depends.

The small boat fleet argues that fisheries should be made a public resource with a post-Brexit government redistributing quotas for social and environmental good. Against the big business argument that smaller boats lack capacity or markets to fulfil bigger quotas, they argue that this problem could be rectified by investment in onshore facilities and by improving the supply chain infrastructure, enabling them to process and sell their catches more easily.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs claimed in a 2018 paper on Brexit that the government “will decide who can access our waters after 2020…for the first time in over 40 years.” But such access to “our” waters will be effectively reserved for the big fishing companies, UK and European. Increased sovereignty after Brexit could be used to benefit Britain’s 24,000 fishing workers and impoverished fishing ports, but that would mean breaking the icy grip the capitalist ‘Codfathers’ have on British fishing.

A trawler leaving the port of Ullapool, north west Scotland