The state of Britain’s fishing fleet — detailed report from 2014

This analysis of the UK over 12m fleet, written by David Linkie and featured in Fishing News July 2014 highlights the major importance of the fishing fleet nationwide — not just as revenue for fishermen but for the socio economic importance to the coastal communities nationwide.

It also serves as a warning of the direction of this industry when one notes that under EU control, the UK has lost over 650 vessels since the Millennium…

Although general totals referring to the number of fishing vessels in the UK fleet are glibly given from time to time by fisheries administrators, they tend to be superficial rather than attempting to accurately categorise the diversity of vessel size, type and distribution around the coastline of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Fishing News presents the following statistical analysis of the UK over 12m fleet which was compiled by David Linkie using a highly detailed and continually updated spreadsheet containing 40 columns of data, including 25 types of vessel, target species, home port, build/engine details, which provides more information than is available on any other official listing.

As of 1st January 2014, the UK over 12m fleet totalled 756 vessels. Of this total, 363 boats were Scottish; 224 English/ Welsh; 113 Northern Irish; 34 Anglo-Spanish and 22 Dutch.

In classifying the UK >12m fleet in terms of the main catch species for each vessel it is immediately apparent that in landing such shellfish as prawns (285 boats), scallops (106 boats), brown crab/lobster/ whelks (50 boats), mussels (11 boats); cockles (8 boats) and shrimps (5 boats), together with herring and mackerel (28 boats), nearly 500 vessels representing some 66% of the British over 12m fleet have no remote interest in catching whitefish.

The UK >12m potting fleet, which includes 32 vivier vessels, consists of 45 English, nine Scottish and two Northern Irish boats. Of the scallop fleet, 55 boats are based in Scotland, 41 in England and ten in Northern Ireland.

The scallop fleet also includes 42 beam scallopers, ownership of which is evenly divided between England and Scotland.

The mussel fleet is split between Wales and Northern Ireland, with one smaller Scottish mussel dredger based in the Dornoch Firth. With 285 vessels the prawn fleet is, by some margin, the biggest single sector (40%) of the UK fleet.

Over 60% of prawn boats are Scottish owned (56 single and 123 twin rig trawlers). Of the 94 Northern Irish prawn trawlers, 46 are twin riggers, while ten of the 24 prawners in the English fleet use a single net.

Of the remaining 248 vessels that form the balance of the UK fleet, 159 of these boats, which include 57 southwest and Anglo Dutch owned beam trawlers, together with 30 Newlyn and Anglo-Spanish netters, land mainly groundfish, as opposed to such traditional gadoid species as cod, haddock and whiting.

The same rationale in terms of catch composition applies to a small fleet of less than 20 under 15m trawlers that fish from ports along the south coast of England for mixed catches of high value species such as lemon sole, megrim, monkfish, plaice, sole, turbot, squid and cuttlefish.

Of the 120 boats that in can justifiably be classified as traditional whitefish vessels, fourteen are registered in England and one in Northern Ireland.

Of the 86 Scottish whitefish boats, 24 are pair seiners, 15 fly shooters, 21 single rig trawlers and 26 twin rig trawlers.

At a time when the UK fishing industry continues to be subjected to effort restrictions arising from the EU’s in transience to reduce the negative impact of the Cod Recovery Programme (CRP), even though skippers are reporting unprecedented amounts of cod on the grounds, the fact that nearly 90% of the UK fleet land either no or very little cod illustrates the degree to which ‘the tail is wagging the dog’.

Comparing the UK over 12m fleet country by country reveals a number of significant differences. A key feature of the 224-strong English and Welsh fleet is a broad underlying balance of vessel types represented.

Some 43 beam trawlers, based predominantly in Devon and Cornwall, represent the single largest group of vessels in the English fleet. With 38 boats, potters are in second position, closely followed by 41 scallopers (of which 18 are beam scallopers), 32 mainly inshore whitefish trawlers.

Audacious is one of 30 UK pair seiners based in south-west England. Twenty one prawn trawlers are based in north-east and north-west England represent the fifth biggest group of boats, slightly ahead of 16 netters and 13 shellfish dredgers.

A very different situation is found in Northern Ireland, where 98 of 113 boats in the fleet are prawn trawlers.

Scallopers, three pelagic vessels, two vivier crabbers and a solitary whitefish vessel, the Kilkeel seiner Arcane, make up the remaining small balance.

Although not as markedly, prawns trawlers are also the dominant type of vessel in Scotland, where there are 118 twin rig and 50 single rig prawn trawlers.

Accounting for over 70% of whitefish vessels in Britain, the Scottish whitefish fleet includes 25 twin rig and 21 single rig trawlers, 22 pair seiners and 15 fly shooters. Of the 55 scallop dredgers in the Scottish fleet, 33% are beamers.

Twenty two pelagic vessels, (78% of the UK fleet) and eight vivier-crabbers, make up the remainder of the Scottish fleet.

Consisting of 34 boats, the Anglo-Spanish fleet includes an almost equal mix of longliners, netters and modern stern trawlers. Thirteen of the 22 Anglo-Dutch boats are beam trawlers targeting a traditional plaice and sole fishery.

Another six vessels are modern twin rig trawlers, some of which are also equipped for fly-shooting on a seasonal basis.

The different emphasis of each country’s fleet serves to highlight the contrasting requirements fisheries ministers and administrators face when negotiating their countries fishing opportunities and annual quotas.

An illustration of the wide diversification of vessel type within the UK fleet is show by the fcat that 5% of vessels (38) account for 35% (151,064kW) of the total kW power.

At the other end of the main engine spectrum, 35% of vessels (264) account for just 11% (48,594kW). One similarity all too obvious across each country’s fleet is the high age profile of the vessels.

The England/Wales fleet has an average age of 32 years, Northern Ireland 38, Scotland 26, Anglo-Dutch 22 years and Anglo-Spanish 33 years.

Since the Millennium 130 new boats have been built that are on the UK fishing registry today.

A closer breakdown of this total shows 86, 37 and seven new builds for Scotland, England/Wales and Northern Ireland respectively. Of the Scottish vessels, 36 were twin rig prawn trawlers (mainly 19m-21m); 18 whitefish vessels (including flyshooters, pair seiners and twin rig trawlers) 17 pelagic boats, 9 scallopers and five vivier-crabbers.

Twenty two of the 37 new additions to the English fleet were dedicated shellfish vessels (brown crab/cockles/scallops) seven twin rig trawlers and five beamers. Northern Ireland’s post 2000 new builds consist of four twin rig trawlers, two vivier-crabbers and one midwater trawler.

At the other end of the spectrum, the English fleet includes 55 boats (25%) built before 1970, Northern Ireland 38 (34%) and Scotland 41 (12%). When vessel type is the criteria, cockle dredgers, all of which are under 15m LOA, have the youngest average age profile in the UK over 12m fleet at 11 years.

At the opposite end of this scale, in relation to vessel size, the pelagic fleet have an average age of 13 years, although only two new boats, Serene and Voyager, have been built for this sector since 2009, compared to 14 boats in the preceding fiveyear period.

Across the other main categories of vessels in the UK >12m fleet, the average ages are: twin rig whitefish trawlers (16 years); pair seiners (25); twin rig prawn trawlers (25); vivier crabbers (25); seine netters (28); beamers (32); mussel dredgers (35); netters (35); longliners (37); beam scallopers (38); single rig whitefish trawlers (38); potters (39) and single rig prawn trawlers (41).

Peterhead (56 vessels) occupies second position, ahead of Kilkeel (53). The two main English ports of Brixham and Newlyn are level on close parity with 43 and 39 vessels respectively. Lerwick (33) comes sixth, followed by Portavogie (32).

Twelve boats or more fish from each of nine ports, Ardglass (21), Campbeltown (12), Kirkcudbright (24) Mallaig (16), Oban (13), Plymouth (15), Scrabster (13), Stornoway (16) and Troon (14).

When the geographical distribution criteria becomes the port of registration, the situation becomes considerably tighter, although Fraserburgh (62) comes first again, closely followed by Belfast (B 57), Newry (N 54), Banff (BF 50), Peterhead (42), Brixham (BM 40), Lerwick (LK 35), Penance (PZ 29), Oban (OB 25), Ballantrae (BA 22), Grimsby (GY 20), Stornoway (SY 19), Inverness (INS 17), Buckie (BCK 16), Fleetwood (FD 15), Hull (H 14), Plymouth/Ullapool (PH 12/UL 12), Campbeltown, Kirkwall, Leith, Troon (CN 11/K 11/LH 11/TN 11) and Scarborough/Whitby (SH/WY 8 each).

In terms of overall length, 13% of the UK over 12m fleet (98 vessels) are under 15m, while 31% (236 boats) are over 24m LOA.

The largest vessel on the UK fishing registry, both in terms of LOA (113.97m) and GT 5597 tonnes, is the midwater freezer trawler Cornelis Vrolijk H 171.

In terms of country of origin, with 357 builds, 47% of boats in the UK over 12m fleet were built yards in Scotland and 113 boats (15%) in England.

Other countries with significant contributions include Holland (110), Spain (45), Denmark (33), Norway (30) and France (27). * In compiling all the information above on the UK over 12m fleet, full consideration has been given to the fact that, over the course of a year, a number of boats usually alternate between such fishing methods as prawn trawling and scallop dredging as well as their port of operation.


Almost one in every two boats that were in the UK over 12m fleet in 2000 are no longer fishing.

With 756 >12m vessels as of the 1st January 2014, at present, there are 657 (46%) fewer boats in the UK fleet today than at the start of the millennium, when there were 1,413 vessels.

While 273 vessels were removed from the British fishing registry by successive decommissioning schemes in 2002/3/4, followed by the smaller English scheme of 2007 that resulted in eight beam trawlers leaving the south-west fleet and the Scottish parked licence scheme of 2009 when a further 40 vessels were broken up, an even higher number of vessels left the fleet during the same period of time due to market forces and loss.

In terms of the number of boats, the Scottish fleet experienced the biggest reduction in terms of vessel numbers, going from 721 boats to 363, a loss of 50% (358 vessels).

The English fleet has downsized by 43% (169 boats) in going from 390 vessels to 221. 51 boats (31%) left the Northern Ireland fleet, which now has 1131 boats compared to 164 in 2000.

The number of Anglo-Dutch vessels dropped from 34 vessels to 22. The Anglo-Spanish fleet now totals 34 boats, compared to the 2000 total of 106. (See Graph No. 6) Looked at by vessel type, the reduction in fleet size includes the loss of more than 400 trawlers.

Other large scale downsizing during the same period of time (2000-2013), included the number of pair seiners dropping from 88 to 30 vessels (-65%); the seine net fleet reducing from 71 boats to 17 (-76%) and the beam trawler fleet being cut from 135 vessels to 55 (60%). At the beginning of this year, some 230 UK registered vessels, including netters and longliners, were targeting whitefish, 500 fewer than the 2000 total of 730 boats; a reduction of 68%.

A similar level of downsizing is found when the target species criteria is narrowed down to traditional gadoid species, haddock, cod, whiting, as a result of 228 boats leaving the fleet, as a result of which the number of whitefish vessels now stands at just 120, compared to 348 eight years ago.

Compared to the various whitefish catching sectors, specific shellfish segments of the UK fleet have avoided a similar scale of reductions.

The one exception to this general view is the prawn fleet, which although still representing the single biggest category of vessels in the UK fleet, today totals 290 boats compared to 457 in 2000.

The loss of 167 prawn boats represents a reduction of 37%. In terms of the number of vessels, with 106 boats (37%) the Scottish prawn fleet experienced the biggest cut. In percentage terms however, at 59%, England endured the biggest drop, as a result of 35 prawn trawlers leaving the fleet, which now consists of 24 boats compared to 59 at the Millennium.

Today, totaling 90 boats compared to 111 in 2000, Northern Ireland’s prawn fleet shows the smallest reduction at 19%. However, it is important to recognise that this figure would have been considerably higher but for the influx of boats left with no option other than targeting prawns due to the closure of semi-pelagic whitefish trawling in the Irish Sea.

Similar reasoning in relation to effort transfer explains the rise in the number of beam scallopers, which today consists of 39 vessels compared to 15 in 2000.

While the number of Scottish scallop beamers has increased from 12 to 21 boats during this timescale, the English fleet has risen from 3 to 18 vessels, primarily as a result of owners having little option other than to make the transition in the wake of quota reductions for ground fish.

Elsewhere in the shellfish sector, the number of dedicated mussel and cockle dredgers, along with potters and vivier crabbers has remained stable, with margin increases in the number of boats across each category.

Without the stabilising factor provided by shellfish vessels (not including prawn trawlers) which account for 25% of the UK fleet, the overall level of reduction across the over 12m fleet would have been significantly higher than the overall figure of 46%, and considerably closer to +60% level that prevails across the various categories of whitefish vessels.

Understandably, the loss of 756 vessels has without exception had a marked impact on harbours throughout the UK.

In terms of the number of boats, by showing a loss of nearly 100 vessels (63%), Peterhead tops the list, followed by Fraserburgh with some 84 boats (47%). In percentage terms, Buckie (87%), Eyemouth (77%), Fleetwood (80%), Newlyn (60%), North Shields (70%) and Whitby (65%) were among the ports to experience very significant changes, although these are eclipsed by Aberdeen, and effectively Lowestoft, where a traditional fishing industry infrastructure is all but consigned to the history books.

Although 600 vessels, many of which were supposedly older boats, have left the fleet, at 27 years, the UK over 12m fleet still has a higher average age today compared to the 2000 figure of 24.5 years.

The present UK over 12m fleet has had average age of 29 years, compared to 25 years in 2000. Today, the Anglo-Dutch fleet exhibit the youngest age profile of 23 years (19 years in 2000), followed by Scotland 26 years (22), England 32 years (29), Spain 33 years (33) and Northern Ireland 38 years (31).

FFL thanks Fishing News for allowing us to reproduce this article on our website