Much of Lowestoft, as it stands today, was built on the back of the fishing industry. As well as a substantial deep sea fleet, a network of supporting industries grew up, including ship building, net and rope manufacturing and processing factories.
The railway used to run into the fish market and fish that was sold in the morning was put on London dinner tables in the evening. “Fresh fish from Lowestoft”, was and still is an invocative phrase, though sometimes today it rings hollow.
The fishing industry here has been decimated and is now facing a fight for its very survival. Most of the deep sea trawlers have long gone, as have all but one of the shipyards and many of the supporting industries. However an inshore fleet remains, which with the right policy framework can not only survive but also flourish.
The Common Fisheries Policy is too cumbersome, unwieldy and centralised and fails to respond to local problems. The regime palpably fails to achieve its prime objective of conserving fish stocks and does untold damage to the marine environment. A huge quantity of young fish are caught before they mature and there are inadequate incentives for the long term management of stocks.
The British under ten metre fleet are coming out of this the worst. They make up 85% of the British fishing fleet, but they get just under 4% of the quota available. The quota system of conserving fish stocks has spurned the obscene practice of discard. Fishermen go out to sea and once they have reached their quota they have to throw back perfectly healthy fish which they are not able to land without a criminal prosecution hanging over their heads.
One Lowestoft fisherman has told me how only two weeks ago in five days fishing he had to throw back dead 1300 kilograms of skate. There are 8 other similar sized boats, which would have been doing the same thing. At a guesstimate that makes 11700 kilograms of dead skate being thrown back in the sea in five days, 11.5 tons in one fishery. This figure multiplied to take into account what has been happening around the British coast is mindboggling. In this fisherman’s own words this not only stops him from making a living, but is decimating a national resource. If he was allowed to land 20 per cent of his discards he could cover his expenses.
Another consequence of the current system is that quota has become a tradable commodity, with legal entitlement. It is often owned by faceless investors, who have no connection with the fishing industry, who lease it out to fishermen at a substantial profit.
The Way Forward
If this regime remains unchanged, the fleet, both in Lowestoft and elsewhere around the UK coast will cease to exist. There must be a move away from the current top down micro management. The EUs role should set high level objectives, not get involved in the day to day management of fisheries around the Continent. The day to day management should be carried out locally on a self regulated basis by fishermen, scientists, such as CEFAS, who have their headquarters in Lowestoft and representatives from MMO and DEFRA. Such an approach with management decisions being taken by those who are involved in each specific fishery is very much the “big society” in action.
The quota system should be relaxed and replaced with a maximum hours at sea means of maintaining fishing stocks and controlling fishing. This will eliminate discards; fishing hours can be varied over a year to take into account stocks and weather conditions. If necessary a fishery can be closed for a short period.
The use of technology is essential in the management of fisheries, both monitoring the amount of fish caught and recording fishing activity. For example a Vessel Monitoring System (a VNS) could be fitted on vessels, providing detailed information on the state and seasonality of individual fisheries. This will provide help provide better information to assist in marine planning decisions, not only concerning fishing but also wind farms, dredging and Marine Conservation Zones.
The forthcoming CFP reform provides an opportunity to do this. It is vital that the opportunity is grasped and I am committed to press Government to achieve the best possible realistic outcome for our fishermen.
I personally will not sit back and rest until a fishing regime that has almost destroyed the Lowestoft fishing industry is itself discarded and thrown overboard.