Blue Marine Foundation, a charity dedicated to restoring the ocean to health, has launched legal proceedings over the government’s decision to set fishing opportunities for more than half UK stocks, at levels exceeding scientific advice.

The charity says this is illegal under post-Brexit fishing law which requires the management of UK fisheries is based on the best available scientific advice and any decisions are made on a transparent basis. Overfishing, if allowed to take place unchallenged, will not only harm the marine ecosystem, but is also against the long-term interests of fishermen and fishing communities.

On 24th January, Blue Marine issued a pre-action protocol letter to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asking the government to admit liability for breaching its legal duty to conserve stocks and for the excessive levels of secrecy around the decision to set fishing opportunities. Blue Marine has now issued proceedings after the government failed to give satisfactory answers to many questions formally submitted by the charity.

One of the most egregious examples of the government’s irresponsibility is the issuing of 24,000 tons of mackerel quota given by Norway to the UK in return for Norway to be able to fish in the UK zone. This quota, worth £24 million, was negotiated by the UK despite the stock being overfished and was distributed for reasons that remain secret.

Mackerel quota is controversial because while coastal states have agreed on the scientific limit, they have failed to agree how to share the catch. Individual nations, including Norway, “self-declare” their own figures, so the overall catch ends up vastly exceeding scientific advice, leading to 400,000 tons more fish being caught than was sustainable in 2023. 

At the same time, employment in the fishing industry overall has been in decline: the latest survey of jobs in the UK fishing industry by Seafish in late August 2022 shows that jobs fell from 8,935 in 2016 to 6,557 in 2022, a fall of over a quarter mostly in the inshore sector. The overall number of fishing vessels fell by more than 12 per cent in the same period. 

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Mackerel is just one of several species including cod, whiting and monkfish where quota has been allocated for this year that is above scientific advice after the annual talks between the UK and the EU before Christmas. In previous years this has led these species to decline precipitously, leaving fishermen (especially small fishing businesses) with diminishing opportunities to earn a living while small segments of the industry reap short-term rewards.

Charles Clover, co-founder of Blue Marine, said: “By continuing to allow exploitation above sustainable limits the government is not only putting fish populations at risk but also everything that relies on them including marine ecosystems and the fishing industry itself.”

Jerry Percy, director of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, said: “The government is already reneging on its commitment – in the post-Brexit Fisheries Act – to include social, economic and environmental criteria when determining fishing quota. It is able to ignore organisations like ours because they know we don’t have the resources to challenge them in court. We therefore welcome Blue Marine’s efforts to hold them to account and to shine a light on how these decisions are made and on what basis.

“Blue Marine gives the example of mackerel among a range of stocks that are in trouble. Current scientific advice states that the sum of quotas for mackerel and the resulting catches have exceeded the scientific advice by on average 44% since 2010 and the risk to the stock is now unacceptably high. This is no way to ensure the long-term sustainability of fishing businesses big or small.”

Martin Yorwarth, 51, an inshore fisherman based in Canvey Island Essex, who fishes for herring and other species in the North Sea and the Channel with his 14-metre boat, said: “We would like to see a tide of change in the way quota is managed generally in the UK.  Since Brexit, things have improved for us, but I’ve always felt that quota is a national asset and government is the right place to manage it rather than the private sector.  You have to prioritise the inshore fleet over the fly-shooters and factory ships to get the social and economic benefits the country wants.”