East Sussex fishermen protest outside High Court over fishing quotas

Eastbourne and Hastings fishermen were this morning heading for the High Court in London in a row over fishing quotas.

The group of small-boat fishermen are joining the government in an unprecedented court battle with Britain’s most powerful fishing groups which could decide the 30-year-old question of who controls the UK’s fishing quota.

The New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association (NUTFA), which represents a large number of more than 300 small fishing boats registered in the south-east, has been allowed to intervene, along with Greenpeace, in a landmark case which has been described as a ‘last chance saloon’ for many coastal fishermen whose livelihoods are hanging by a thread.

Delegations of fishermen from Eastbourne and Hastings will be in London today to join Greenpeace for a demonstration in front of the High Court building on the Strand as the first day of hearings begins. The outcome of the case is bound to have an immediate impact on many fishing communities in the south-east, such as Eastbourne, Hastings, and Ramsgate, where under-10-metre boats form the backbone of the local fleet.

At the heart of the legal dispute is the decision by the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs to reallocate a small amount of consistently unused fishing quota from Fish Producer Organisations, which is a group of vessel owners controlling over 95 per cent of the UK’s fishing rights, to small-scale fishermen, who have access to a tiny four per cent share of this resource, despite making up over three quarters of the UK’s fishing fleet.

Small boat fishermen are bitterly unhappy that they are being penalised over the way fishing rights have been allocated.

Defra’s move, announced last year, raised hopes among small boat owners that this could be a first step towards a fairer distribution of quota.

But the industry heavyweights, represented by the UK Association of Fish Producer Organisations, have taken Defra to court over the decision, arguing that reallocating part of their share of fishing quota is tantamount to ‘deprivation of possessions’ – an argument implying that they regard quota as a private asset.

Greenpeace and the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association are arguing that fish is not a private commodity but a public good held in trust by the government on behalf of all citizens, and that fishing rights should be allocated on the basis of sound environmental and economic criteria.

“It’s simply unacceptable that access to a public resource should be considered as just another commodity, to be bought and sold to the highest bidder, irrespective of its vital social, economic and cultural importance to fishermen and the hundreds of coastal communities they support,” said Jerry Percy, chief executive of NUTFA.

“This is the last chance saloon for many small scale and sustainable fishermen who will not have a future if their birth right ends up in the hands of a few big players”.

The UK’s fishing quota, estimated to be worth over £1billion back in 1999, is now likely to be a multi-billion pound asset.