Commercial fishing continues to ratchet up the illusion of economic importance


Commercial fishing can be a highly damaging activity with a large degree of by-catch of unwanted species, but it is continually glamourised by commercial fishing lobby groups and, consequently, the national media.

At present, not a day goes by here in the South West that commercial fishing is not featured in some way in the local media.  Commercial fishing leaders are actively creating stories, frequently related to Brexit, and ensuring local TV, radio and newspapers run with those stories. Similar efforts are being made on a national level with equal success.

The result of all this PR is reinforcing the erroneous belief in the minds of the gullible public that commercial fishing is hugely important both economically and for our domestic food security. In short, we’re led to believe if fishing isn’t cherished, propped up with tax-payers money and supporter by Government, the economy of the UK will collapse and we will all starve.

The total value of all English commercial fish landings from the lowly cockle to the delicious and expensive turbot is a paltry £165 million. Nationally, this is a truly miniscule sum. 

That the majority of journalists who grasp and promote such stories is a sad reflection of their culpability. Such journalists have evidently failed to do their homework, which would reveal how commercial fishing seriously outpunches its true economic weight, a fact well recognised and publicised by John Gummer, ex Fisheries Minister, when his term of office ended as long ago as 1997.

Since fishing is devolved let us take a look at England separately. The total value of all English commercial fish landings from the lowly cockle to the delicious and expensive turbot is a paltry £165 million. Nationally, this is a truly miniscule sum.  Here in Cornwall with a population of just 500,000, the county’s adult care & support budget is £196m and this is just one slice of one of the smaller county council’s annual budget and yet it exceeds the entire value of all commercial landings across the whole of England!

To emphasise this further: the embryonic English wine production industry was worth £132m in 2016 and is growing annually. The population of England is 53 million so around £3 per head equates to the entire commercial fishing landings.

Just for clarity, the first sale value of landings is the money that pays all the wages of the fishermen, the capital and running costs of all the boats, the fishing gear, landing dues and any other overheads. So with wages, English commercial fishing pumps £165 million throughout the economy.  In addition, there are downstream economic impacts such as processing, packaging and distribution.

Take a kilo of monkfush tail for example. A fisherman catches and sells some monk tail for, say, £15.  A wholesaler sells to a retailer for £20. A restaurant buys it for £27. The restaurant produces five meals with sauce & veg and sells them for £19 each, of which £12 is for the monk element of each meal. Therefore, the original £15 worth of fish has now become worth £60.

But, of course, these significant downstream impacts only apply to fish marketed and sold within the UK that end up being used in the ‘eating out’ sector.  The add-on impacts are less for food sold for home consumption and even less for exported fish and a great deal of UK captured fish is exported.

Can England’s marine fishery resources really be worth so little?

The answer is a resounding ‘NO!’.

UK landings of all shellfish = 141,000 tonnes. Exports are 89,000 tonnes. For exported fish the add on values are confined to a profit margin for the seller plus some ice, polystyrene boxes and transport.

Can England’s marine fishery resources really be worth so little?

The answer is a resounding ‘NO!’. There is another direct user of marine fishery resources whose activities are equally reliant on sustainable management of the nation’s fish but which has hitherto failed to achieve an equivalent profile in the media.  Around one million English residents participate in this activity for a wide range of motivations that include acquiring some of the freshest possible seafood for family consumption. Foraging for wild food and growing some of one’s own food is currently enjoying increased interest and selectively catching a little of the nation’s public fishery resource with hook and line without destroying the seabed has to be the ultimate achievement in terms of traceability and sustainability.

This activity is called Recreational Sea Angling (RSA).

Bass march

There is an increasing push from the Angling Trust to make decision makers realise that Recreational Sea Angling would deliver the best return for the UK economy for many stocks if it was to become the priority user.

And according to published Government reports, English sea anglers directly pump £1.23 billion into the economy across a wide range of goods and services that generates £2.1billion of total spending, a total of over 23,600 jobs, and almost £980 million of GVA.

This is the real economic driver from fishing and as evidenced in other parts of the globe where overfishing has been more robustly dealt with than in the EU, the RSA industry has huge potential for growth providing fisheries managers grasp the nettle and manage the nation’s fishery resources for abundance and long-term sustainability.

I hope Defra’s plans are sufficiently ambitious so as to deliver a much better future for the nation’s fishery resources because the fish deserve it as well as the nation.