Supporting the UK’s fishing co-operatives

It is one thing to declare the UK an 'independent coastal state'. But it is UK policymakers who will shape what that means in practice


While the EU Common Fisheries Policy has long been blamed for the decline of coastal towns, an uncomfortable truth remains. Reducing the number of European boats fishing in our waters won’t be enough to stem the challenges facing the industry. At their heart, the problems are structural.

Just three companies own two‑thirds of England’s fishing quota. Faced with cartel-like behaviour, small‑scale operators are at a disadvantage when it comes to securing a fair share of the catch. The result has been a steady fall in the size of the UK fishing fleet, with coastal communities for whom fishing is a key part of their identity, falling into decline . It is one thing to declare the UK an ‘independent coastal state’. But it is policymakers who will shape what that means in practice.

The government’s Fisheries Bill provides that opportunity. Too often, existing policy has enabled a fishing industry with little purpose beyond extracting value from coastal communities and delivering it into the pockets of shareholders. It’s time to be much more ambitious than that, realising the huge social, environmental, economic and even cultural value that smaller producers create.

Eastbourne may be best known as a seaside resort, but its fishing industry provides employment to 200 local people. Just under 40 family-owned boats operate out of the harbour, with many having done so for generations. Faced with growing threats to their viability and determined to secure the long-term future of the industry in the town, in 2013, the fishermen came together.

The resulting organisation, Eastbourne Fishermen, is one of 65 co‑operatives in the UK’s fishing sector, which have a combined turnover of £48.1m. As in other sectors such as farming, co‑operative structures enable the fishermen to pool risk and access bigger markets. It also enables the sector to work together to protect the long-term sustainability of the UK’s seas.

Much of Eastbourne Fishermen’s catch is caught and landed on the same day and sold locally, while the rest ends up on the tables of some of top restaurants across the UK and further afield. At the centre of the the organisation’s ambitions are plans for a new Fisherman’s Quay, based on purchasing and developing a site in the Sovereign Harbour area of the town. On it, they hope to develop a facility to produce their own ice and process their own fish, increasing the value of the catch and creating jobs. It will also enable them to directly supply local customers including schools, hospitals and the local council.

The project is a good example of the ways in which co-operatives can support the financial viability of small-scale fishermen, realising the social and economic value they create.

There are wider benefits too. Fishing co‑operatives can play an important role in reducing competition for diminishing stocks. Through co-operation, fishermen can negotiate systems of management and control between themselves. In doing so, they secure a viable future for fisheries and the industry itself.

The Fisheries Bill is currently passing through Parliament. Through an amendment to the Bill, Co-operative MPs, including Shadow Fisheries Minister Luke Pollard are working to ensure co-operatives play a key role in that vision.

The plans are part of Labour’s plan to double the size of the Co-operative sector, a pledge that has already driven policy announcements in areas a wide as education, agriculture and energy.

The fisheries amendment would place new duties on the Environment Secretary to support the development of co-operatives businesses involved in all aspects of the fishing industry. ­Support would be given to existing fishing co‑operatives to grow, and to new co-operatives to start up. It would target particular support at coastal towns where fishing has been in steepest decline.

Fishing is at the heart of the economies and identities of communities across the country. To ensure that remains the case, it’s time to spread wealth and ownership.