Fisheries Minister, Victoria Prentis has been told that some inshore fishermen are on suicide watch and desperate due to regulation pressures

Fisheries Minister, Victoria Prentis has been told that some inshore fishermen are on suicide watch and desperate due to regulation pressures. Photo: Tony Fitzsimmons

Inshore fishermen are at breaking point with the continuous onslaught of economic hardships, regulations, offshore energy developments and consultations according to MPs who spoke at yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on the Inshore Fishing Fleet.

The debate, secured by Conservative and Totens MP, Anthony Mangnall, heard from numerous MPs who all had the same message to the attending Minister for Fisheries, Victoria Prentis, that inshore fishermen are at crisis point.

The Minister replied to their concerns by saying, “there are some extraordinary examples of individuals and regions seizing the initiative to make the industry more sustainable and profitable.”

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Anthony Mangnall pointed out the areas of concern for the inshore fleet, saying “I am going to tackle four areas, and for Members who might want to intervene, this is the order in which I shall do so: first, the fuel crisis; secondly, the MCA under-15-metres code; thirdly, the spatial squeeze; and, fourthly, the catch app and the inshore vessel monitoring system.

He called on the Government to intervene in the rising cost of fuel for the sector. He said, “We cannot underestimate the impact that the fuel price crisis will have on our fishing fleets if the Government fail to respond. There are steps that individual vessels and skippers can take—from optimising gear, fishing methods and vessel propulsion systems, to improving maintenance both of vessels and hulls and of engines and auxiliary engines, as well as improving operational husbandry—but that costs money. Businesses might usually be able to ask for or to source investment, but that has been proving incredibly difficult due to high prices, poor returns and a lack of certainty.”

He made two proposals which he believed would mitigate the impact of the rising cost of fuel on the fishing sector:

“First, the UK Government and DEFRA have created the UK seafood fund—a fund of £100 million set up to support the long-term future and sustainability of the UK fisheries and seafood sector. This fund should be repurposed without the need for match funding in order to help enhance and retrofit vessels with green technology.

“Secondly, the super-deduction scheme, announced in the 2021 Budget, was a stroke of genius and was applicable to fishing operators purchasing new vessels. However, it did not support the retrofitting and upgrading of vessel machinery to make it greener and more fuel efficient, so the scheme ought to be amended in order to help at this difficult time.”

He also called for a reasonable approach by the MCA when it comes to the application of the new safety code. He said, “There are solutions. The MCA should revise its roll test stability assessment to include either the heel test or the offset load test. Water freeing arrangements should be considered on a risk-based, individual approach by the MCA. The MCA should state a turnaround time for these tests; the NFFO has suggested a week, which I think is perfectly reasonable, as do industry representatives. Improved guidance and consolidated information need to be written so that it can be more easily understood and implemented. Finally, the MCA should train its surveyors to work hand in hand with fishermen to understand that these changes have a significant impact on them and on their jobs. I say again, no one wants to reduce safety at sea, but we must take fishermen with us rather than bamboozle and confuse them with non-sensical generalised tests.”

He continued, pointing out the impact this is having on ordinary inshore fishermen:

“I am positive about the future of fishing in the UK, but I frequently meet angry and depressed fishermen whose mental health is suffering and who, in many cases, are considering packing it all in. It is ironic that with the current expected changes being forced upon us, many fishermen are taking increased risks and working in rougher conditions. That is the exact opposite of the what the MCA code seeks to do. There must be better engagement.”

Luke Pollard Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport and for Shadow Minister for Fisheries said in his statement:

“I worry that the problems that fishers are experiencing are compounding and coalescing to be more and more difficult. They are not only making their lives harder, but making the future of fishing, in particular from small boats—the under-10s, the inshore fleet—much harder.

We must acknowledge that massive pressure from both the cost of living crisis, to which fishers are prone given the cost of fuel, and the difficulties in using inadequate technology. The Minister knows my view on the catch app: it has been a disaster to date. Progress is welcome, but it is not yet enough. IVMS costs, as well as other costs faced by fishers, are making fishing trips less profitable. Furthermore, not enough is being done to get British-caught fish into British supermarkets. We have had that debate before, and we will no doubt have it again. We need to get to the point where fish caught by British fishers and landed in British ports can be sold with the same celebration and flag waving that we get for British beef in the meat aisle at British supermarkets. That is currently absent from the fish aisle.

“Fishing matters. It matters in my constituency, in the south-west and, looking at the geographical spread represented by Members across the Chamber, in every part of our country. In the patch that I represent, there are 1,000 jobs in fishing, but in my past five years of being an MP, I have never seen more fishers concerned about their future and about whether they will stay in the trade. There has always been a fair amount of banter down the pub with fishers about the success of the industry and what is going right, but I am seeing more deeply worried faces. I would like to speak briefly about those people, because I am really concerned that many fishers across the country are now at a crisis point.

“Paul Gilson, chairman of the NFFO, said that “a very large number of fishers are deeply depressed” and that many are now on suicide watch. Our fishers work tirelessly—day in, day out—to feed us, and they have families to support in a difficult economic climate. They were promised a better system post Brexit, but that has not been delivered. Fishers in our inshore fishing fleet are feeling neglected, and many are not only thinking about their future, but are worried that there is no way out and no end in sight. That should worry each and every one of us, and it is why we must not continue to let down our fishing communities.”

Chris Loder Conservative MP for West Dorset and the Lyme Bay area said in his statement:

“The Lyme Bay fishers have done all that has been asked of them to fish sustainably, but we have a small-scale fleet, and the challenges that they now face to make a living are increasingly difficult, particularly in the light of the huge fuel price increases. The value of their catches remains the same, but gear costs have increased. Those fishing families face the same cost of living challenges as other families.

“I do not think that the Minister can pull a magic lever to fix those issues, but fishermen report endless consultations, meetings and additional burdens, such as the catch app, I-VMS, new MCA inspections and so on. Those burdens can and need to be addressed. In West Dorset, we are finding the MCA a bureaucratic nightmare. It holds our fishermen to account against its own questionable or false advice. That is increasingly becoming a problem. I hope that I can count on the Minister’s support to help with some particularly difficult issues in my constituency. Fatigue in the sector is considerable. The sheer scale of bureaucracy is causing real mental health concerns.

“Fishers are not a regular stakeholder group. Our fishermen do not work nine to five, so the MMO, the IFCAs and officials in the Minister’s Department can and should do more to make things easier for them. Meetings in the middle of the day and the middle of week do not work, because if the weather is fine, fishers go out to sea. They need to do that to earn their money in these increasingly difficult times. Moving all these meetings to early evenings or weekends would make all the difference to attendance and engagement, and fishers would not be faced with a choice of giving up a day’s pay or making their representations.

“West Dorset predominantly has small fishing vessels, not big fishing businesses. These small fishers have no paid representation to attend and speak on their behalf at a level to help inform policy.”

Peter Aldous, Conservative MP for Waveney said:

“The inshore fleet is currently facing a variety of challenges and there is a serious risk that it will not be around to take up the opportunities that local fisheries management plans can provide. I shall briefly outline some of those challenges.

“The regulatory burden is bearing down very heavily on inshore fishermen. It is significant, growing and disproportionate—taking into account the amount of time it takes up and the way it is applied—compared with the regulations for both larger and foreign vessels, and, I suggest, for other sectors, such as farming and retail.

“Safety and accurate records are incredibly important, but the introduction of the catch app, I-VMS and over-zealous inspections create an administrative burden and added costs that place businesses at risk and take up an enormous amount of time, which adds to fatigue and exhaustion and makes a long day even longer and fishing an even more precarious and risky occupation. Is it really necessary for inshore fishermen to have to account to the local IFCA, the MMO, DEFRA, local authorities, the MCA and, in some places, Natural England? One REAF recommendation is for the regulatory system to be joined up and not fragmented. Given the Government’s planned reduction in the civil service, now would appear to be an appropriate time for DEFRA to review the current regulatory framework.

“As has been mentioned, spiralling fuel costs are crippling the inshore fleet. They are making taking to sea financially non-viable, which means no income for many households.”

Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP Cambridge and acting Shadow Scretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said:

“I have been struck by the intense pressure at the moment on people working in the inshore fleet. I was also struck by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) about the NFFO’s Paul Gilson, who has been making his point very strongly, to me and to others, about the effect that things are having on people at the moment. Frankly, people are buckling; one distressing case in the industry that has played out over recent weeks is known to many of us, but it is not an isolated case. Partly, I am afraid, that pressure is due to the boat inspections that are being conducted by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency—everywhere I have been, I have heard that issue raised.

“An email has been passed to me, written by someone fishing from an under-8 metre boat. A recent inspection found that his freeboard was 20 mm under the limit, and the MCA has insisted that he either block up the scuppers and fit tanks and pumps under the deck, which he considers would be extremely unsafe due to the high likelihood of the pump fouling, or get a full naval architect’s report to say that his boat is safe, which he has been told would cost thousands of pounds. The boat is watertight and well maintained; it has been fishing since 1980 without a single safety incident, and has never even broken down and needed a tow. The author of the email fishes single handed and sells all of his catch directly to the public, with his partner handling the sales. The MCA has banned him from going to sea, so the family has lost its entire income at a stroke. The only permitted solutions are either dangerous or completely unaffordable. He is dyslexic, and has struggled to understand the regulations and the correspondence he has received. He describes himself as “desperate” and “at the end of my tether”.

“That email was forwarded to me on the day that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) had agreed to meet me and a delegation from the NFFO, and I read it to him and his officials. It is, of course, very powerful. We have sent the Minister who is responding to today’s debate a summary of that meeting, in which we raised a series of issues including the roll test stability assessment; the matter of previously certificated vessels requiring alteration to the original design, which makes them potentially less safe in the view of those fishing from them, particularly—as the email said—those relying on pumps; the very high charges being levied for inspections, which to some very marginal operators seemed excessive; and a range of other issues. I am pleased to report that the Minister replied to me yesterday promising more flexibility and reviews of some of those practices, so I hope that the representations that have been made have some impact. We will see. I am slightly sceptical, because I think there is a bigger issue here. This has been a constant complaint from fishermen I have met around the coast. People feel got at. Some, in turn, feel spied upon and tracked. They feel that they are being treated as if they are criminals, and that is really not a good feeling to have.”

Replying to the concerns of the Members of Parliament, Fisheries Minister, Victoria Prentis replied:

“On the seafood fund, much of the inshore fleet can receive 80% grant funding if it does not use towed gear. Action has been taken to support the inshore fleet and some specific measures were set out in our 2018 White Paper. We have allocated an increased share of quota to vessels under 10 metres, providing them with over 5,000 tonnes of quota during 2021, which nearly doubled the tonnage. We have provided reserved quota to the fleet to support the landing obligation, and the economic link licence condition in England has been strengthened, bringing more quota to the non-sector pool.

“We plan to do more to ensure that the quota transfers can be better utilised by the inshore fleet. We have listened to industry about wanting to be more involved, although I take on board the comments about when and how to do that, the tone to use and even the time of day at which to have the meetings. Those are all valid concerns that I will take away.

“With the MMO, we have established five regional fisheries groups to provide a formal and regular forum for engagement between the inshore fleet and policy makers, scientists and regulators. Operating at a regional level enables the distinct issues and concerns that relate to local fisheries to be discussed in a way that is not possible nationally, which is a step forward. The groups have already put forward some good, scientifically based projects, including on small-eyed ray and area 4c sole. These projects will be taken forward immediately by the CEFAS.

“Fisheries management plans will help managers to design bespoke, flexible and transparent approaches for a number of key stocks. The inshore fleet is fully engaged with that process and I am always willing to listen to suggestions made to hon. Members by their local inshore fishermen about different ways in which they feel we could be consulting with them. We hope to start a consultation before the summer recess on how to protect non-quota species, and I encourage all hon. Members to get involved with that.

“We have heard concerns from across the Chamber about the manner in which MCA inspections are being carried out. I recognise that the inspections can be a source of stress. This is very difficult territory, as was widely acknowledged, because we also recognise the enormous importance of vessel safety. We are all concerned about the sadly increased number of deaths as lockdown came to an end. We heard again from my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, who speaks so passionately on such issues.

“I will continue to liaise closely with my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), on marine safety. I am pleased that the MCA has started to attend some of the regular regional groups that we have around the coast for members of the inshore fleet. Engagement is probably the answer here. My hon. Friend and I are having a marine safety roundtable in Maritime Safety Week which begins in the first week of July, and I am happy to look at other ways that those present at this debate can be involved in marking that important week.

“We heard concerns about IVMS and the catch app. The MMO—I visited one of its offices, in Newcastle, recently—is working intensively with fishermen to resolve the issues and concerns. I am glad to say that most have been resolved. Uptake of the catch app is now at about 90%. The MMO was keen to reassure me that the intention is not to penalise fishermen, but to collect landings information in a way that is sensible. IVMS is now installed on most under-10 vessels and we have got over many of the initial teething difficulties. Four models are available for fishermen to purchase.

“Many hon. Members mentioned the spatial difficulties, so let us not forget that IVMS and the catch app are important tools that will provide us with the data that we need to understand the impact and importance of the inshore fleet, for example, when making decisions about offshore wind or the location of other spatial planning pressures. The data that we have lacked for so long is needed urgently, but it is important that we work with the industry to collect the data in a way that works for it. Nevertheless, the better the data we have, the better the decisions we can make.

“We also heard about eating more fish and about selling British fish. I am glad to say that fish is embedded in the food strategy, and that is real progress. Over the course of the pandemic, we saw some improvement in how British fish is marketed and sold directly, but there is much more to do. I look forward to working with Members in all parts of the House on promoting fish from their area to our eaters.

“The fleet faces significant challenges, which the debate brought to our notice and which Government, regulators, scientists and the industry itself must continue to address. The diversity of the fleet is one of its strengths, however, and there are some extraordinary examples of individuals and regions seizing the initiative to make the industry more sustainable and profitable. They can be assured that they have the support of the Government and indeed of everyone in the debate.”

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