Sunk by the EU quotacrats
Published by The Mail on Sunday (30th November, 2014)
The rusting stern of the Cornelis Vrolijk towers over the quayside in Ijmuiden, an immense port near Amsterdam. She is one of the largest trawlers in Europe: a mighty 370ft long, capable of hauling in 150 tons of herring and mackerel each time she throws her giant nets overboard.
The captured creatures are sucked down tubes, sorted for size on conveyor belts, and then frozen in a factory-style process deep in the bowels of the boat. When the vessel returns to port, cranes hoist the massive catch from the huge boat and dump it, box after box, on the dockside. This isn’t small fry. Its latest 2,500-ton catch was worth about £500,000.
As I watched this process a few days ago, there was no doubt I was observing an impressive example of industrialised fishing. Beside me, lorries lined up to take away piles of packed fish. Each took 26-ton cargos, destined to end up in the markets and shops of Egypt, Nigeria and Japan. ‘None of it goes to Europe,’ said one driver.
Clearly this is a profitable business, making millions for the Dutch family firm that owns the Cornelis Vrolijk. Yet this giant trawler symbolises the absurdities of European fishing policies.
For these fish, taken by a Dutch-owned boat, unloaded in a Dutch port and dispatched around the globe by a Dutch logistics firm, were caught in English coastal waters under Britain’s fishing quota allocated by the EU.
The super-trawler is one of about 3,000 UK-registered vessels, of which the vast majority are small in-shore boats that are based in traditional British fishing communities dotted round our coastline.
But astonishingly, the Cornelis Vrolijk – which has reportedly stopped for less than ten hours in the UK over the past year – holds nearly 23 per cent of the entire English quota.
The reasons for this remarkable anomaly are complex. Before we investigate them, let us first visit the historic fishing centre of Hastings in East Sussex.
Here, British boats struggle to survive on the pittance they earn from the fish they are permitted to keep, with crews forced on many trips to throw back far more of their catch than they land.
‘I feel so frustrated by this,’ said Paul Moralis, a crewman on the Jack Henry. ‘I want to buy my granddaughter presents for Christmas but it’s very difficult.’
The net result is that many fishermen are being forced to abandon a way of life followed by families for generations. The number of British fishing boats has fallen by more than a quarter in two decades.
Crews claim the quantity of fish in the sea is higher than for many years, something disputed by European Union scientific advisers. Regardless, stocks are being hoovered up by big commercial operators at the expense of our in-shore fleets.
Little wonder when I asked the crew cleaning the Jack Henry about the Cornelis Vrolijk, Mr Moralis leaned over the bow and replied angrily: ‘I’d like to sink that damn boat.’
So why is one foreign vessel collecting so many fish, where the little English boats must throw much of their meagre catches back?
In fact, the real villains are not the owners and friendly crew of an efficient Dutch trawler. They are the bureaucrats in Brussels and politicians in Westminster who created a market rigged against small players, one that is wasting vast quantities of fish and gravely threatening many traditional fishing communities.
‘With small fleets you can only fish what is on your doorstep so it must be sustainable. We are not like the big vessels that can go anywhere,’ said Dave Cuthbert, a Plymouth skipper and co-chairman of a campaign group called New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association. ‘The sad thing is that the fish are there but we are allowed to take less and less. It is not us that have done the damage to stocks, yet we are the victims.’
At the core of the problem lies the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), designed to share communal fishing grounds while protecting stocks, but condemned as ‘the most dysfunctional of all EU policies’ by the Open Europe think-tank. It is based on fishing quotas, doled out to countries and based on historic claims of catch sizes.
Crucially, when Britain negotiated entry to Europe, it won a poor deal that allowed French fleets, for instance, to take a far larger slice of stocks in the Channel.
Moreover, small-scale vessels – those under ten metres (30ft) in length – did not have to record landings at the time. So although making up more than three-quarters of the British fishing fleet, they were belatedly given just four per cent of the national quota.
Meanwhile, the Cornelis Vrolijk – so big she has sailed down to raid the seas off West Africa – ended up with a huge slab of the English quota. Why? Because its owner had two big trawlers with high historic catches when quotas were first dished out (although one boat has since been sold). Then its share was boosted by buying a chunk off a Humberside rival, thus gaining nearly a quarter of the quota.
It is currently the only boat registered to a British company called North Atlantic (Holdings), which has a £20 million turnover and is controlled by a Dutch firm, Cornelis Vrolijk Holdings BV. Another 20 per cent of England’s quota is held by other foreign-owned vessels.
This did not matter for many years since the small-scale fleet was ignored by regulators on the basis its fish catch was inconsequential compared with big boats. But this changed following new rules introduced eight years ago with stricter monitoring of catches – one fisherman told me of having a police helicopter film his boat from overhead and Royal Navy ships patrolling the waters along with specialist inspectors.
In Hastings Old Town, by the famous tall wooden sheds used to store fishing gear on the shingle beach, skipper Paul Joy demonstrated the impact of these policies.
A fisherman for 43 years, he showed me his catch for the day – two half-filled plastic trays containing 17 Dover sole, six small cod, three gurnard and one bream. ‘I’ll get £50 for that if I’m lucky,’ he said gloomily.
So for carrying out one of the country’s most dangerous jobs, his team had taken home just £180 each in total over the previous three weeks.
‘It’s ridiculous,’ said crew member Mick Adams, forced to sell his own boat six years ago. ‘If I had kids there’s no way I could afford to do this job. I’ve not been on holiday for years and I lived in a camper van for three years. My car has just packed in but I can’t afford another.’
Yet filled quotas forced them to discard four boxes of plaice and three of skate that day worth more than £200 – just as it made them jettison their entire catch a fortnight ago on the only day they went out all week due to bad weather.
‘I love being at sea but no one could enjoying dumping all this good fish, knowing 80 per cent will die,’ said Mr Joy, 65. When he began fishing four decades ago, two-thirds of his catch was cod. Then overnight he was banned from taking more than half a cod a day on average. ‘I lost two-thirds of my income in an instant,’ he said.
This year’s skate quota was, for the first time, finished in September, and then his region’s plaice quota filled a month later. So they switched to smaller mesh nets to snare sole – but this means they end up catching many other fish that must be discarded.
‘There are far more plaice in the seas then when I started but we spend all our time trying to find places that have no plaice, which is simply insane,’ said Mr Joy.
Little wonder that both his sons have eschewed fishing, breaking a family tradition going back several centuries; or that despite having two of only 16 UK fleets certified for sustainable fishing, Hastings has seen the number of active boats fall from 44 to 28 in recent years.
Other skippers told similar stories. ‘It’s a headache,’ said Stuart Hamilton. ‘We had five days ashore for the weather, then went out yesterday and had to discard 10st of plaice, coming in with a catch worth just £120.’
Now these fishermen have formed an unlikely alliance with Greenpeace. ‘Historically, there has been friction between us and the fishing industry,’ admitted Nina Schrank, Greenpeace’s oceans campaigner. ‘But we have started to fight their corner because our country’s most sustainable fishermen are themselves under threat.’
They argue that recent CFP reforms require governments to give quotas to those contributing most to coastal economies, not the big ships plundering stocks wherever they want. Yet the reforms also mean all discard fish must be landed, which will soak up quotas faster and force many more fishermen to go bust.
The Government insists it values fishing communities, saying it increased their potential catch by 720 tons last year. This is, however, less than a third of the quantity that fills the Cornelis Vrolijk’s carnivorous holds. ‘We are reviewing how we measure a vessel’s economic benefit to ensure we are getting the best deal for the UK,’ said a spokesman. ‘EU law means we cannot prevent companies from other member states owning and operating UK-flagged vessels.’
The owners of Cornelis Vrolijk believe they are being unfairly targeted, saying the British-flagged ship employs 55 crew from this country and has only eight per cent of the total UK pelagic – or open water – quota, since much of the fishing industry is based in Scotland.
Stewart Harper, managing director of the Cornelis Vrolijk’s UK subsidiary, said they focused on just four species of high-volume, low-value fish that require expensive vessels with on-board refrigeration. He claimed catches were landed abroad because of a shortage of suitable facilities in Britain.
‘Even if we did land it here, 95 per cent would be exported,’ said Mr Harper. ‘We do not eat enough of these species, preferring cod, haddock and plaice.’
Certainly the Cornelis Vrolijk, its crew and its owners should not be blamed for exploiting the failures of bungling bureaucrats and timid politicians.
Yet that single industrial trawler I saw unloading in Ijmuiden stands as a symbol of a flawed policy that is crucifying fishing communities across Britain.