Global Policy Forum

Who Owns the Right to Fish? Manchester United?

Small fishing boats, which employ large numbers of fishermen, comprise close to 75% of the UK fishing fleet but hold only 4% of fishing rights. Essentially, the public right to fish in the UK has been privatized: fishing rights are traded in a loosely regulated, non-transparent quota market for private profit. This means the vast majority of fishing rights have been given to a small minority of large vessels that are less environmentally friendly than smaller boats. Jeremy Percy, chief executive of the New Under Ten Fishermen's Association, argues it is illogical to force these experienced and sustainable fishers to pay for their continued right to catch fish.Privatizing fishing quotas in the UK is just another example in the popular and worrying trend of privatization.

By Emma Cardwell


August 5, 2011

The decline of the British fishing industry is often blamed on the EU quota system – the means by which European policymakers decide how many fish European fleets are allowed to catch every year. Less is generally said about how the UK government allocates their share of EU quota domestically – and how this unfair allocation represents a stealth privatisation of public rights, destroying the British fishing industry and the coastal communities that depend on it.

In the UK, the right to catch fish in territorial waters has traditionally been public – owned by the crown and managed by the state on behalf of the people. As fish stocks have dwindled, and under the catch limits imposed by the EU common fisheries policy, these rights to fish have become increasingly valuable and can now be leased to fishermen for substantial amounts of money.

Given this, it is somewhat shocking that very few members of the British public know that the British government freely gave these fishing rights to a small section of the fishing industry in 1999. These public goods have, since then, been bought, sold and leased for private profit on an unofficial, non-transparent and loosely regulated quota market.

Thomas Appleby, a senior lecturer in law at the University of the West of England, has publicly questioned the legality of this "privatisation by stealth", which he calls "the biggest property grab since the Norman invasion". Legally, a state sell-off of public property should only be done through an act of parliament. "Government departments don't normally dish out valuable public rights to individuals without going through due process," Appleby wrote in the Ecologist in March, "this usually involves statutory checks and balances."

The vast majority of UK fishing rights were given to a small minority of large vessels. Smaller fishing boats (under 10 metres in length), which make up around 75% of the UK fishing fleet, were only granted about 4% of fishing rights. This means that thousands of British fishermen have been left with very little right to fish, although smaller boats provide more employment and are widely considered to be more environmentally friendly, they have been forced to either take on the considerable expense of leasing quota from the owners of fishing rights, or go out of business.

"It makes absolutely no sense" says Jeremy Percy, chief executive of the New Under Ten Fishermen's Association, "that small-scale fishers, with a heritage of genuinely sustainable fishing going back hundreds of years, should be forced to pay quota owners, often quota traders, ever increasing prices to lease the right to catch fish."

The identity of these quota owners and traders is shrouded in mystery, as the management of quota fishing rights is not in the public domain. Only the producer organisations (the industry membership associations that manage quota) know exactly who now owns fishing rights. The government has admitted that even they do not know who owns the quota.

According to one fishing industry representative I interviewed recently, there's a rumour that some is held by Manchester United. "I don't think that's true," he admits. "But there's no way of knowing for sure. I do believe that the Royal Bank of Scotland owns some quota, but again, there's really no way to confirm it."

Whitby boat-owner Bob Roberts has repeatedly filed Freedom of Information requests for information about who holds fishing rights, which have been refused. "I would consider it to be entirely within the British public's interest to know who owns our fishing rights," he says. "Since they are a national asset, I can see no reason why this information is not available."

With the common fisheries policy looking ever more likely to introduce a European quota market, it's of vital importance that we now take a good look at how fishing rights are allocated in the UK, before it is too late. Requests for information can be made to the Marine Management Organisation, or you can write to your MP to express concern about the secretive and undemocratic way in which the public right to fish has been privatised.

"It's time to introduce a fairer and more transparent method of allocation than the current one," says Jeremy Percy of the New Under Ten Fishermen's Association. "This system rewards those who have the biggest impact on the environment. Fishing rights belong to the public. Allocation based on environmental, social and economic criteria would increase employment, support coastal communities, dramatically reduce discards and provide greater protection to the marine environment at a stroke."


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