EFRA Committee Member Barry Gardiner highlights mental health issues facing small-scale fishers in letter Minister Victoria Prentice

EFRA Committee Member Barry Gardiner highlights mental health issues facing small-scale fishers in letter Minister Victoria Prentice

EFRA Committee Member and Labour Party MP for North Brent, Barry Gardiner has written a letter to Fisheries Minister, Victoria Prentis expressing his deep concerns over mental health issues facing people involved in the small-scale fishing industry due to the overwhelming pressure of new regulations being heaped upon them.

These issues have been highlighted by The Fishing Daily in a series of articles by Fisheries Consultant, Terri Portmann.

In the news articles “Government are going to make us criminals,” fear English fishermen and VMS a ‘perfect storm’ of red tape for small-scale fishermen in England, Terri focused attention on how small-scale fishers around the English coast feel vulnerable and criminalised by the Government’s plans regarding CatchApp, the introduction of Inshore Vessel Monitoring Systems (I-VMS) and the new MCA inspection regime.

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The installation of I-VMS and bringing their boats up to MCA standards is costly. Many of these small-scale fishing families face financial pressures that they simply cannot afford and funding that was promised previously has now disappeared down the Brexit rabbit-hole.

The thought of CatchApp is frightening. A 10% margin in guessing the weight of fish you have onboard plays on the nerves because one mistake and you have turned yourself into a criminal. It can be likened to the pressure of playing Russian Roulette. To ask any person to criminalise themselves on a ‘guesstimation’ surely must be inhumane, but this is what small-scale fishers are being asked to do.

Last Wednesday, 02 February, at the EFRA Select Committee, Members questioned Minister Prentis and her two deputy directors about the annual fishing talks outcome.

The Minister took several questions on the introduction of CatchApp and I-VMS. Committee Member Barry Gardiner, amongst other questions, highlighted the mental health issues that people in the small-scale fishing industry are currently facing. In a letter addressed to the Minister dated 07 February, Mr Gardiner again highlighted these issues and asked the Minister to provide answers on how to mitigate these pressures.

Mr Gardiner’s letter can be read below:

Dear Minister 

Mental health issues affecting fishers in the small-scale fishing fleets. 

It was good to get the opportunity to ask you questions about this and other matters at the EFRA Committee hearing last Wednesday.  

I share the concern you showed for fishers’ mental health, but I was concerned to find that your meeting with the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) is not scheduled until the end of the month. 

You will be aware that the Former MMO officer who is now executive officer at the South Devon and Channel fishermen’s association recently told the Fishing Daily in respect to the I-VMS roll-out: 

I am deeply concerned about the additional stress this roll-out is causing, at a time when these same boats are faced with the Government going to the enforcement stage on CatchAPP and when the MCA is stepping up new safety testing. It is a perfect storm of new regulation, the mental health consequences are palpable. 

CatchAPP 

While everyone concerned wishes to ensure that we have better verification and monitoring in order to be able to assess the health of stocks, the fundamental issue, raised by fishers, remains: they are unable to guess the weight of fish accurately, consistently and within the 10% margin of tolerance that the new rule, entering into force on 28th February 2022, requires.  

The parliamentary questions answered by you in 2020 that I referred to in the EFRA Select Committee were in respect of vessels in the over 10meter fleet and demonstrated that in c.40% of cases, their landing data was unable to comply with the 10% of margin of tolerance rule. A subsequent question demonstrated that for the particular basket of stocks indicated, almost all reports were outside of the 10% margin of tolerance. In some cases this was by as much as 116%! 

In your letter to the EFRA Select Committee Chair, Neil Parish MP on 30th April 2020 you said  

That CEFAS report identified, for example, that the data recorded on sales notes differed to the actual landing data in 34% of the observed cases. The sampling conducted, highlighted significant inconsistencies between observer data and sales notes i.e. what was being caught and sold, with discrepancies of up to 53%”.  

You correctly identify this as a reason for more accurate data collection, but you appear to ignore the vital point: that accurately and consistently estimating the weight of catch has shown itself to be simply not possible.  

The auctioneers in Plymouth, Plymouth Trawler Agents (PTA), were so concerned about the logistics surrounding the CatchAPP that it wrote raising the matter in great detail to the CEO and senior officials at the MMO. PTA also explained that even in Plymouth – one of the larger ports, public scales were not available for use by fishermen and that many smaller ports did not have scales, nor a place for them to be sited.  

MMO officers were invited to Plymouth to demonstrate how they thought it was possible to guess weights of catch accurately and consistently. Senior officials from the MMO initially agreed to come and demonstrate, but no such meeting and demonstration has occurred in the 2 years since. While some events around the coast have now been organised by the MMO for the coming weeks, these are to demonstrate the APP, not to teach fishers how to guess fish weight accurately and consistently.  

The history of catch estimates is a long one.  

2006 

I seem to recall from my own time at DEFRA in 2006-7, that work was commissioned via MRAG. This was to gather evidence in response to the EU proposal to adjust the margin of tolerance from 20% to 8%. Although I can find mention of the report, I cannot find the actual report online. But my understanding is that it demonstrated once again, that fishers cannot accurately and consistently guess the weights of their catches to within a 10% margin of tolerance. 

2011 

SEAFISH’s  February 2011 report, ‘Weighing at sea trials’, commissioned by the MMO further demonstrated that estimating the catches of vessels accurately and consistently was not possible.  

2016 

CEFAS’s 22nd July 2016 report C6875 ‘Under 10m sampling project’, commissioned by the MMO further demonstrated that estimating the catches of vessels accurately and consistently was not possible. Further, I understand, this report’s recommendation for follow-up work and further investigation was not commissioned.  

The evidence that fishermen cannot accurately and consistently guess the weights of their catches is compelling, consistent and overwhelming. From fishers, fishing organisations, lawyers, DEFRA research, and multiple research papers commissioned by the MMO and delivered by organisaitons within the DEFRA family, all offer these same conclusions.  

You will understand that this is material, because enforcement of the regulations is now imminent. Leading fisheries solicitor Andrew Oliver, a partner at Andrew Jackson of Hull, recently told the Fishing Daily in respect to the CatchAPP moving to enforcement stage: 

“This is a clear breach of human rights. It is against public law principles to create a criminal offence for which it is impossible to comply with” 

It is difficult to understand why this MMO CatchAPP project, having spent in excess £2.4M so far, missed all these warning signs and opportunities to develop something that took account of what DEFRA has learned over the past 15 years in this field and produce something that worked.   

You are aware that the MMO acts as your regulator. It has powers to bring summons and prosecute fishers who would be guilty of a criminal offence if they breached these conditions of their licence. These are the desperate concerns that are affecting fishers’ mental health. They fear being criminalised for failing to comply with a regulation the government is putting in place in full knowledge that it cannot be complied with 

I-VMS rollout 

Your evidence to the EFRA committee on this matter was of course correct in saying that this is not a regulation, yet. However, you did not address the point that the grant funding has been time limited by your regulator (the MMO). This means that the first tranche of fishermen MUST choose and install their kit by March 14th 2022, and complete their grant application in order to be able to claim the grant on offer of £650. They are effectively being forced to act at pace, or not receive financial support.  

After many years of Government delay in this workstream, the MMO now appears to be making up for lost time by forcing small-scale fishermen to make choices of suppliers from the MMO’s approved list, which was published only just before Christmas. The consequences of poor choices made in haste, because of an arbitrary date chosen by the MMO will be long lasting and may have severe cost implications to these micro businesses in the future.   

Unlike the processes used for Government intervention and the roll out of vessel monitoring on larger vessels, the MMO has not used a robust Government procurement process that would interrogate the financial health of the supplier, their ability to service the kit in years to come, or the service level agreements that impose contractual obligations to fix kit,  when it goes wrong. Instead, they used a type approval process. This approval process, which was conducted by the MMO, did not even require evidence of independent testing of the kit in a marine environment at sea.  

The forward you wrote the forward to the SEAFARERS UK report, ‘Fishing without a safety net’ shows you are aware of the vulnerable financial situation most of the small-scale English fishers find themselves in. These are often owner operator / micro businesses without a lot of shore support. But now, because of the use of a type approval process fishers are not just having to choose which kit may or may not suit their particular size of vessel (some of which are just over 4m in length) but to conduct due diligence on the financial health and stability of the suppliers,  and make assessments of their ability to continue to trade and provide spares and service in the years to come.  

Some of the approved suppliers are start-ups registered at Companies House in the last quarter of 2021. Some of the suppliers are merely selling on a manufacturers kit, effectively agenting the devices, some of which is available elsewhere at a fraction of the cost. On top of this, fishers are having to consider the contracts being offered by the suppliers.  I fear few will have the legal background to consider the implications of the contracts, nor the funds to seek appropriate legal advice even if they had the time to do this in the timeframes prescribed by the MMO.  

I note the MMO has recently arranged the suppliers to present at a virtual QA but this does not  provide the due diligence needed for fishermen to make well informed choices. The MMO have posted links on their websites to consumer rights, so it clearly recognises the level of due diligence fishers should be conducting, but it is difficult to know what assessment the MMO actually made of fishers capacity in this regard. 

The regulatory triage document accompanying this Government intervention was drafted in 2018 and predicted a roll out by 2019. The extensive delays have meant that the time frame for roll out have been missed and some of the funding structures described, are now not available.  

Originally it was expected EU funds would be used for the kit, and the installation would be fully funded, as it was for vessels over 12m and in the pilot for this project for under 12m vessels in the Devon and Severn district. The triage document recognises that the average cost of the kit would be c.£1200. However, during the MMO’s type approval process, and perhaps because of delays meaning that EU funds were no longer available the MMO instructed potential developers and suppliers that a £500 grant was likely to be offered to fishers. After the type approval process was conducted and suppliers kit were approved the MMO raised the amount of grant to be offered was raised to £650 for kit and installation.  

It is difficult to know how the greatly reduced limit on the Government grant available and the deviation from the regulatory triage document detail of this Government intervention had on the robustness of the kit that was ultimately put forward to the MMO for type approval by suppliers. Notable market leaders in the field of VMS did not submit any kit to the process. It is possible that understanding the financial vulnerability of these small-scale sector businesses, that suppliers developed and put forward kit for type approval that would be mostly covered by grant funding, rather than a more expensive and robust kit that would be unlikely to sell as small-scale fishermen could not simply afford it. I can find no explanation why the grant being offered is 50% less than the triage document nor why the process has deviated so much from what was prescribed within it.  

I would urge you to instruct the MMO to review the arbitrary timeframe they have imposed on the access to grant funding. Fishers should not be driven to make snap financial decisions without the time and analysis they need to get it right.  

I would also ask that you make your own personal investigations into the type approval process. In particular you might ask why the MMO has decided to ignore the details in the regulatory triage assessment. I think it is important we all understand why the small scale fishermen are being left exposed to a process that requires greater due diligence, and offers less protection than was afforded to larger vessels and businesses who were protected from these risks when Government rolled out VMS for them. 

MCA inspection regimes. 

Safety at sea is vital. We must do more to help all fishers come home safely, every trip. Too many small scale fishermen are lost at sea, many as a result of capsizes caused by poor vessel stability and so it is welcomed that the MCA is doing more work in this area.  

You will recognise however, that this, work which is ongoing around the coast, is resulting in a lot of angst and putting some small scale fishermen in a precarious financial position. There are anecdotal reports of the inspections being applied differently in different areas and by different inspectors. 

CatchAPP, the  I-VMS work, and the MCA interventions are having a damaging and cumulative impact on small scale fishermen. The consequence is yet further pressure on the mental health of our fishing communities. I trust that you may already have engaged with your ministerial colleagues at DfT to see what can be done to mitigate these pressures. 

At the moment their combination amounts to a ‘perfect storm’. 

I look forward to your timely reply. 

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EFRA Committee Member highlights small-scale fishers mental health concerns

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