UK fishing rights at risk of 'privatisation by stealth'

Issue date: 08 March 2011

An environmental law lecturer from the University of the West of England has called for UK fisheries authorities to come up with a fairer and more environmentally sustainable way of allocating fishing rights.

Tom Appleby, Senior Lecturer in Law at UWE has reviewed the history of allocating fishing quotas. He says the topic is particularly pertinent at the moment as it seems the government has shied away from privatising the forests, but may be accidentally privatising the fisheries instead.

He points out that since the introduction of fishing quotas in the 1960s, those who were initially allocated quota (or their descendants) have come to view it as their own property. This has led to the quota being treated as a tradable commodity, rather than a temporary licence to access a common good. This raises the issue of what exactly is quota, and whether UK fishing rights being privatised by stealth.

Tom says, “Traditionally there was, and still is, a public right to fish in UK waters, which belongs to the Crown on behalf of the public. Fishermen could fish commercially and recreationally simply because they were UK citizens. In the 1960s it was recognised that there was a need to license fishing vessels, and the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act was passed in 1967. At the time everyone who applied for a licence could get one, but in the mid 1980s the Ministry decided to issue no new licences, but to continue to reissue licences to existing holders. At almost the same time, in an effort to control fishing, maximum limits were placed on landings of certain species. The Ministry probably didn't realise, but by capping vessel numbers and introducing quota it was effectively creating an exclusive fishing right for those with enough foresight to complete the paperwork.

“One of the key issues is, what happens when people want to retire or leave fishing? Does the goodwill in their business evaporate or should they be able to sell not just their boat but their licence and quota to someone else, particularly if they are passing their business on to a family member? Over time these licences and quota attached to them have been traded, amounting to a secondary market in the licensing paperwork.

“Does this mean the public right to fish has been privatized? For the sale of a right to commercially exploit the public fishery some sort of privatisation needs to take place. Although this has happened in some ancient estuarine fisheries and in shell-fisheries, generally a privatisation would need a new Act of Parliament. Also government departments are not permitted to dish out valuable public rights to individuals without going through statutory checks and balances ensuring a full market value or some other public benefit.

“The wording of vessel licences and guidance notes makes clear that these rights are only temporary and are allocated at the discretion of the UK Fisheries Minister. This puts the current arrangements in the equivalent of legal outer space - do quota holders have a right to the continuation of the practice or not?

“From an outsider's perspective what emerges is a pattern where consistently the UK fisheries authorities have sought to preserve the status quo despite their legal obligations. This legal mess is a shame, as rights based management was, and is, one of the key cornerstones of the reforms of the EU's common fisheries policy. The UK has one of the best organised fisheries in the EU and is probably one of its most enlightened member states when setting quota at the international level.

“It is vitally important that the UK Government and the devolved administrations turn their attention to the issues of illegal delegation, anti-competitive practice and unauthorized privatisation before some seismic court case rips the system apart. In the process the UK Government and the devolved administrations will have to finally answer the difficult questions of who really should be getting the UK's quota, what are the terms of its disposal, and what exactly quota is.”

FFI: Jane Kelly or Mary Price, Press Officers


Tel: 0117 32 82208


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