Call for fair fish quotas in Norfolk and Suffolk grows louder

Demands are growing to give Norfolk and Suffolk fishermen a fairer deal as the government announced it was investigating the quota system.

Defra is looking into so-called 'slipper skippers', who it is claimed hold up to 30pc of the nation's fishing quota without ever setting out to sea. There are currently no rules preventing non-fishermen from taking part of Britain's annual share of quotas which are dictated by Europe every year, then leasing them out to make money.

As consumers become more aware of the problems threatening the industry, thanks to campaigns such as Channel 4's Fish Fight series, the Anglia Fishermen's Association and Lowestoft MP Peter Aldous are now calling for the slipper skipper practice to be scrapped so under-pressure fishermen can get a fairer and larger share of quotas.

At the moment the 18 small fishing vessels at Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Southwold – a small remnant of the region's once-mighty fleet – are only allowed to catch one tonne of cod and 100kg of skate a month each.

To survive financially, some fishermen are forced to go cap in hand to slipper skippers, some of whom are ex-fishermen, to lease their quotas off them so they can catch extra cod and skate to pay their bills. A typical fee could see a fishermen pay a slipper skipper half the price of his catch.

For members of the public – who are increasingly keen to eat sustainably sourced fish, both at home and in restaurants – this could ultimately lead to less choice as the fish merchants that supply shops and restaurants opt to import instead of selling locally caught fish.

The argument over the slipper skipper practice has put the spotlight back on the issue of discarding. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingshall's Fish Fight programme recently highlighted, it is estimated that 50pc of all fish caught in the North Sea are thrown back overboard dead.

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This is for three reasons: because a fisherman may catch a different type of fish than the one he intends to catch, for which he does not have a quota; or because he catches fish not restricted by quotas but for which there is no market; or because he has inadvertently caught more than his quota. A trawlerman does not know how much fish he will haul up and if he goes over his quota will have to discard healthy fish.

Last year one Lowestoft fisherman reported discarding dead 1,300 kg of skate in five days of fishing - and Lowestoft MP Aldous said that across Lowestoft's fleet this equates to 11.5 tons of dead skate thrown back into the sea in five days.

Yesterday as the AFA said the region's fishing fleet may struggle to survive due to an unfair quota system, a glimmer of hope was offered by Defra.

As part of a government review of the fishing industry Defra says it may set up a register of quota ownership to make the process more transparent.

Under current arrangements only 4pc of European Common Fisheries Policy quotas are given to the country's fleet of fishing vessels under 10m long. The vessels, including the 18 across Lowestoft, Yarmouth, and Southwold, make up 85pc of the nation's fishing fleet.

The rest of the quota is shared between groups called producer organisations, made up of fishing vessels, and the so-called slipper skippers who trade in and lease quotas and have no obligation to have links to the fishing industry.

Melvin Robinson is a spokesman for the AFA and has the Lowestoft fishing boat the Four Daughters. He claims up to 30pc of quotas were in the hands of non-fishermen.

Mr Robinson said: 'The slipper skippers are an absolute nightmare for the fishing industry. Unless there is action there will be fishermen going out of business.

'All these slipper skippers do is sit on quotas and then make a huge profit from them while fishermen who actually take to the sea are denied a proper share.'

Mr Aldous has also campaigned against the current quota system. He said: 'It is quite right for Mr Robinson to raise this.

'At the moment we have got a situation where 85pc of the Britain's fishing fleet only has 4pc of the quota. It is quite a ridiculous situation to be in.'

A Defra spokesman told the EDP: 'Currently, there are no rules to prevent non-fishermen from holding quota.

'Some of these are ex-fishermen or others who play a role in selling or leasing quota.

'We will soon put forward proposals to reform the fishing industry in England and as part of this we are looking at ways to improve transparency of quota ownership, possibly through a register.'

Fishing in Cromer and Wells is less affected as it is mostly based on crustaceans.

Ivan Large, chairman of North Norfolk Fishing Society and Wells and District Inshore Fishermen's Association, said: 'The EU quotas are a bit of a problem for fishermen in north Norfolk but the majority of them do not rely on cod to earn a living, but instead on crabs, lobsters and whelks.'

He added: 'Discarding is something that has been a problem for several years and I'm dead against it. I hear of boats throwing thousands of fish back into the water and it makes absolutely no sense.'

The King's Lynn fishing fleet is not affected as it concentrates its efforts almost completely around mussels.

The AFA and Mr Aldous are also lobbying for changes to the European Common Fisheries Policy in 2012 to preserve fish stocks by replacing quotas with a system regulating the amount of time fishing vessels can go out to sea and the type of technology they use.