Will the North Devon Fishing Industry Survive?

The piece below was transcribed from an interview with Scott Wharton – owner of S&P Trawlers in North Devon – by prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) Dawn Westcott.

It is unusual for all but a minority of politicians to sit down and listen to and understand the situation British fishermen are faced with.

A huge thank you to Dawn for doing so and for taking the effort to transcribe it so others can hear the voice of the industry.

We only wish more politicians would take the time to listen and act, rather than ignore or be bound to a bad course of action by the greasy pole of party politics where they tow the central offices line of what the industry should accept rather than what it needs.


Will Brexit see the rebirth of the North Devon fishing fleet, or is it already too late to save this 1000-year-old source of local employment?

Dawn Westcott’s interview with North Devon Fishing Trawler Boss Scott Wharton:-

Scott Wharton runs S & P Trawlers Ltd business with his son, Danny Wharton, in North Devon. Since the EU took control of fishing quotas in the 1980s, Scott has seen the once booming local fishing industry decline from a dozen or more larger trawlers (over 12m) to just one and a smattering of smaller boats.

Along with his large trawler, based in Ilfracombe, Scott has another 12m trawler which is also berthed in Ilfracombe and further involvement in another 3 fishing vessels in the SW.

Scott says his business continues through reasons of passion and dogged determination and is as much about community as earning a living. “It’s not a job, it’s a way of life,” says Scott. He left school at 14 years old, finding great satisfaction in going lobster potting and since then has put his life and soul into building his fishing business.

“It’s one of the most rewarding jobs to do. With fishing, you’re a free spirit. We’re still got an industry, against the odds, and we’ve put everything back in to the future of this business.”

Complex fishing rules, regulated by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), can result in fishermen dealing with a disconcerting stream of Court Summons for ‘rule breaches’.

The ruthless acquiring of fishing quotas by big business and overseas companies has seen local fishing communities struggling to survive, with access to only a tiny percentage of quotas and severe restrictions on what they can catch. The EU Commission sets the quotas for each Member State and has the power to take them away if they aren’t reached.”

Scott explains further, “For example, with Sole, there’s a quota of something like 750 tonnes for the Bristol Channel. Out of that, the UK has a quota to fish around 250 tonnes. That’s controlled by a handful of owners and it causes problems when they lease their quotas overseas, rather than to local fisherman, in what’s known as ‘international swaps’- where an owner swaps their quota to catch other types of fish, like Hake, Cod and Haddock.”

“This kind of quota distribution isn’t community-based, it’s more about serving big business interests and the impact on the local fishing communities is disastrous,” says Scott, “Unlike the big ‘fish-anywhere’ international operations, local fishing fleets have a vested interest in making sure there are abundant fish in their local waters in years to come. But the huge factory ships can empty our waters and then move on to somewhere else like Africa, without a backward glance.”

Getting hold of extra fishing quota can be notoriously difficult. “Around 88% of the Welsh fishing quota is held by Spanish firms,” said Scott. “This isn’t a level playing field because it’s practically impossible for us to buy quotas from Spain. And around 50% of the English fishing quota is held by Holland, Spain and Iceland (which buys quota from the EU). The French and Belgian trawlers have access to around 70% of the UK fishing quota, which is conducted through international ‘swaps’.

When you think that boats from North Devon have less than 1% of the overall Bristol Channel fishing quota, the Common Fishing Policy has been a disaster and has resulted in the devastating decline in the North Devon fishing industry,” said Scott. “To put this in context, in the SW, it is believed that around 80%-90%, of the Fixed Quota Allocations (which decide the unit size of fish per tonne) is owned by about 3% of companies. This means there’s only around 10% of FQA’s available for the 97% of the local fishermen in the SW. As a result, big companies are controlling the smaller local fishermen through small leased quotas.”

“Local fishing communities can sometimes catch their quota in 24 hours and then have to watch huge foreign trawlers fishing within 6-12 miles of the UK coast for weeks afterwards catching huge hauls, while they’ve had to return to port.”

Additionally, the local fishermen are forced to waste perfectly good fish due to the Discard Ban, which Scott feels causes a fish welfare issue. Instead of returning fish inadvertently caught in the nets, or which exceed the targeted quotas, they’re required to land everything and send it to landfill. Traditionally, fishermen like to look out for live, juvenile fish and return them into the sea so they can continue to mature. Now, if they’re caught and are on the Discard Ban list, they have to be sprayed with dye and landed dead, which Scott feels is cruel and compromises stock sustainability.

“I don’t like doing it,” said Scott. “No-one does. It’s appalling from a welfare point of view and a terrible waste of perfectly good fish. There’s also the problem of ‘Choke Species (Fish)’, where if more than the allowed quota of that particular type of fish is caught, the boat has to return to port.”

“Cod (on the Discard Ban) was a problem from day one, especially for the u10m vessels which had very little FQA’s – in some cases as little as 10 kilos of fish (ie, one fish!) per day. If they catch over the quota allowance they would have to return to Port. A very similar situation with Haddock which are in abundance in the South West, but unfortunately there is very little quota for the local vessels,” said Scott.

 “This has had a catastrophic effect on the Cod trawlers, which couldn’t go to sea under these rules and remained tied up in port. Bass is not part of the Discard Ban, so you can return them live or dead back in the sea, because they’re considered endangered. Very few are allowed to be caught, but there’s a healthy population of Bass off the coast of North Devon, which could be sustainably fished locally.”

Scott thinks that only a clean Brexit could fix this situation and that the opportunities for UK fishing are enormous. “We need a tailor-made UK fishing plan. A clean Brexit has great potential to regain some fairness in the distribution of quotas to help community fishing industries. It could potentially double or even triple the size of the industry. For each job at sea, four or five are created on land with the fish processing business.”

“At the moment, the UK vessel catch values are approx £1 billion (2018) and with the fish processing value added, increasing to approx £4 billion (2018). The EU catches 60% of stocks in British waters. Post Brexit, with control of quotas returned to the UK, the UK vessel catch values would be approx £2 billion, increasing to around £8 billion after processing. The UK fishing industry employs around 24,000 people. Post-Brexit, fishing could increase to 2% of GDP and could be worth £billions if we had our quota back. The industry could feasibly grow to employ 100,000 people.”

After Brexit, while existing quotas may remain the same, Scott feels the real benefit to local fishing communities would be the way the extra quota, which would be returned to the UK to control, is distributed. “There are historic foreign fishing rights that are honoured and recognised by the MMO. We’re not saying you can’t fish here,” says Scott, “I don’t want to put people out of business. I want the quotas reorganised so they’re fairer to the UK. We can be reasonable, but we need to be in control. We can decide the proportion of fish that we don’t need, that we can allow foreign fishermen to catch.”

Instead of allowing big or foreign businesses to buy up the new quotas, Scott feels the solution is to ring fence the extra quotas and establish Regional Fishing Industry Groups, comprising local business and community people, with Regional Managers, to ensure that the quotas are fairly distributed amongst the local fishermen within their communities. Organised to best suit local communities and manage the fish populations and welfare in their local waters.

“These Regional groups could also decide how any unused quotas would be used, or leased to fishing businesses outside the area.” Scott believes this is the way to create prosperity and sustainability within the local fishing communities and industries. “The opportunities for fishing are very good if we regain control over our industry. It can rebuild and rejuvenate with investment in better equipment and employment.”

However, Scott is very concerned that the transition period of the Withdrawal Agreement will result in yet more delays, negotiations and restrictions, that will put an already diminished and struggling British fishing industry, out of business altogether.

North Devon wants a fishing community. The young people want to do it – two of my skippers are just 24 and 25 years of age and fishing provides gainful employment for youngsters, keeps them out of trouble. If our fishing industry is lost, it won’t come back. We can’t afford to lose it. North Devon has got to buck the trend, get some teeth, get our quotas back and keep our boats here. We’ve got to empower the local communities again.”

He feels Brexit will also rejuvenate the local ship building industry. “People are now having to get boats built abroad because UK boatyards are so busy with a 2-3 year waiting list. We need to start building boats here again. There would also be the need to build more fishery protection vessels to police the waters after Brexit, and there would also be great scope for more fishing businesses in North Devon.”

People come to beautiful North Devon for their holidays and expect to see fishing boats and a thriving local fishing community. It’s an important part of our history, heritage and culture – and our tourism industry,” he says, “Don’t put us out of business – the North Devon fishing and ship building communities are part of our history and I want them to be thriving long after I’m gone.”

Listening to Scott’s story about the decline of North Devon’s fishing industry and its impact on the local community is heartrending. There are great opportunities for fishing post Brexit and I look forward to seeing the British fishing industry and communities flourishing again, if we get the opportunity to properly leave the EU. Dawn Westcott

The original piece can be accessed below ->