Will leaving or staying in the EU be best for our fishing industry?

Home fishing in 1960's at LowestoftPicture: Supplied

Home fishing in 1960's at LowestoftPicture: Supplied - Credit: James Bass

The impact of the European Union common fisheries policy (CFP) on the UK fishing industry is set to play a huge part in the EU referendum debate, particularly in hard hit coastal towns such as Lowestoft. Kathryn Bradley looks at the issue.

Lowestoft fishing boats in the harbour.

Lowestoft fishing boats in the harbour. - Credit: Picture: Nick Butcher

What is the current state of the UK fishing industry?

The total number of fishermen in the UK is about 12,000, down from about 20,000 in the mid-1990s. The number of fishing vessels in the UK fleet has fallen by 26pc since 1996.

Lowestoft fishing boats in the harbour.

Lowestoft fishing boats in the harbour. - Credit: Picture: Nick Butcher

In the early 1990s there were 117 inshore fishing boats working out of Lowestoft compared with about 12 today.

Ben Stebbing, who is descended from a long line of Lowestoft fishermen, said it was hard to give an exact figure as there were a number of boats registered to Lowestoft that were actually working out of Holland.

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In its heyday, during the early 19th century, Lowestoft was home to hundreds of boats.

Waveney MP Peter Aldous said the state of the UK fishing industry as a whole wasn't particularly good, but that varied from place to place. He said fishing was thriving in Peterhead, in Scotland, but Lowestoft had been hard hit.

Merchants bidding at the auction at Lowestoft fish market. Picture: Bill Darnell

Merchants bidding at the auction at Lowestoft fish market. Picture: Bill Darnell - Credit: EDP © 2003

Mr Aldous said he believed there were a number of reasons for the decline, including over fishing, the way the British government allocated quotas and the CFP, which had seen fishing grounds managed centrally from Brussels with no understanding of local conditions.

However, the CFP was reformed in January 2014 and the changes include more regional management of fishing grounds and a ban on discards – the practice of dumping dead fish into the sea if a quota has been exceeded. It also includes Article 17, which requires quotas to be allocated with regard to environmental, social and economic considerations and could therefore favour smaller, inshore fishermen.

Mr Aldous added that much of the problem in the last 20 years hadn't been with the EU, but lay in the way the British government had allocated quotas. He said the government had pursued a policy of allocating a large quota to the Lowestoft Producer Organisation, whose boats were no longer based in Lowestoft but were now based in the Netherlands and Scotland.

'I think this is what has hit Lowestoft really hard,' said Mr Aldous. 'A very sizeable amount of fish that was landed in Lowestoft has been taken away and that has taken away the main part of the industry.'

What are the current rules around quotas?

The CFP was introduced in the 1970s and is a set of rules for managing European fishing fleets and for conserving fish stocks. Designed to manage a common resource, it gives all European fishing fleets equal access to EU waters and fishing grounds and allows fishermen to compete fairly.

The CFP sets total allowable catch limits (TACs) for most commercial fish stocks based on scientific advice on the stock status.

TACs are shared between EU countries in the form of national quotas, which they distribute among their fishermen. EU countries can exchange quotas with other EU countries.

However, the quotas are bought and sold like stocks and are not necessarily in the hands of fishermen. Boats without any quota can 'lease' the right to catch fish, although this is less profitable.

When all the available quota of a species is fished, the EU country has to close the fishery.

Quota increases were agreed for the UK fishing industry for 2016.

Quota increases for the UK include English Channel plaice (100pc), North Sea cod (15pc), North Sea haddock (47pc).

How has the fishing industry changed?

Fewer boats operate out of UK ports now and those that do tend to be small, inshore boats under 10-metres, known as the under-10s, rather than trawlers.

Nationally the under-10s comprise 77pc of the UK fleet and employ 65pc of the workforce, yet they receive only 4pc of the quota available.

Coastal towns reliant on fishing have fallen into decline as associated industries, such as ice companies, chandlers and engineers, also disappeared with the fishing fleet.

Mr Stebbing explained that fishing in the UK could still be profitable but boats did not have the quotas to make the work viable. He said leasing fish could work out to be unprofitable.

'Times have changed a lot compared to when my grandfather and uncles were fishing,' said Mr Stebbing.

'We have no say over the common fisheries policy. The inshore quotas are ridiculous.

'Every Friday, the best thing you can do to understand this is stand on Lowestoft pier heads and watch five or six French trawlers travel home past here. They have been fishing in the North Sea. They can travel from Calais to the North Sea but we can't make it because we don't have the quota.' Mr Aldous agreed the inshore boats had a bad deal over quotas and said he would be arguing for Article 17 to be properly implemented by the British government.

How could things change if we left?

No one really knows as an exit plan has not been outlined yet. Fishermen hope it will lead to abandoning or reforming the quota system and taking back control of UK waters.

Mr Stebbing said: 'It will give us a chance to make our own rules and set up a fairer system for our own country.'

What are the arguments for remaining in the EU?

The common fisheries policy was designed to protect fish stocks, which were dwindling long before the quotas were introduced. Leaving the EU could result in over fishing of UK waters if not properly managed.

Mr Aldous said he believed the reformed CFP, if properly implemented, could address the concerns of ports such as Lowestoft but it needed to be given more time to work.

He said leaving the EU would mean negotiating what percentage of the quota belonged to the UK. He said that was likely to take years, if an agreement was reached at all. He added: 'If properly implemented, the reformed CFP provides the opportunity for the inshore fleet, like that fishing out of Lowestoft, to have a sustainable future.'

What are the arguments against staying in the EU?

The UK will have a chance to regain control of its waters and potentially revive the flagging fishing industry.