Small-scale fishermen celebrated a landmark victory over industrial scale fishing on Wednedsay, when the high court in London ruled that fishing quotas could be redistributed by the government in favour of smaller vessels. This leaves the government free to reallocate valuable fishing rights, that have been unused or under-used by the big trawling vessels to which they were originally assigned, to smaller boats. Small scale fishermen argue that their fishing efforts are more environmentally friendly than those of larger industrial scale vessels, and support more jobs at hard-pressed UK ports.
The judgement, following a lengthy legal battle, is the first time this principle has been established in English law. Finding in favour of the small fishermen who brought the action on all three counts, Justice Cranston ruled: “No one can own the fish of the sea.” He said: “Fish are a scarce resource, and decisions relating to it have important social, economic and environmental implications.”
However, representatives of the industrial scale fishing lobby are getting ready to appeal. There are also likely to be further arguments over how broadly this ruling applies — the high court was considering the specific question of whether unused quota can be reallocated, but this applies to only a small fraction of the UK’s total fishing quota. If ministers were to try to reallocate quota that is used by big vessels, they could face a further legal challenge.
However, the judge made clear that no organisations had rights to quota except under the fishing minister’s annual decisions on how it should be allocated.
The organisation representing small fishermen, the New Under Ten Fishermnen’s Association, hailed the judgement. They are angry that over 95% of the UK’s quota is allocated to the Fish Producer Organisations, made up of industrial-scale vessels that are often foreign-owned, even though small vessels make up three quarters of the UK’s fleet and supply two thirds of the seagoing jobs. Jerry Percy of NUFTA said: “This ruling gives the minister the opportunity to review the entire basis of allocating fishing rights and provide a lifeline to the smaller-scale fishermen who are the lifeblood of many coastal communities.” Greenpeace, which backed NUFTA’s legal battle, urged the government to be bold in protecting small-scale fishermen. Ariana Densham, oceans campaigner at the pressure group, said: “Richard Benyon [fisheries minister] is in a stronger position than ever to wipe the slate clean on decades of monumental mismanagement of fishing quota by successive governments.”
Separately, a decision on whether EU fishing fleets should receive large subsidies for new vessels under the common fisheries policy reforms is also expected on Wednesday.