Who owns the UK fishing industry and its fishing quotas?

Prior to the UK’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC/EU) in 1974 and the establishment of the fishing quota system under the auspices of the European Common Fisheries Policy in 1983 UK fisheries were an open resource to UK fishermen. That is to say, UK fishermen could fish within and beyond the UK’s territorial limits without restriction (except of course within other countries’ territorial limits) and do so without restriction on their catches for all fish species.

However entry into the EEC in 1974 meant that the UK’s fish stocks became a European Community resource to be shared with other EEC countries rather than a national resource primarily available to UK fishermen; and, when the quota system was adopted in 1983 by the CFP which rationed and apportioned the right to fish stocks between EEC member countries, the fish resource was effectively privatised — that is to say, one could no longer fish on an open basis but only upon possession of a licence and under the terms of that licence. Licences were tradeable and could be bought and sold between fishermen.

Thus, for the first time, the question in UK fishing industry could be seriously asked as to who owns the UK fishing industry and the right to fish its stocks?

In addition, as the quota system has taken ever increasing hold upon the Common Fisheries Policy and its determination of fishing rights (largely introduced to conserve stocks which were being heavily over-fished) so has the significance of this question of ownership intensified. In simple terms, unless one holds a quota one cannot fish; and so for fishermen the greater the number of quotas held the more important and effective the ability to fish has become.

How the quota system works

The Common Fisheries Policy sets quotas for how much of each species can be caught in a certain fishing area (known as ICES areas whose stocks are assessed annually or bi-annually by scientists employed by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea — ICES). Each country is annually given a quota based upon the total available for each species (Total Allowable Catch — TAC) and the size of this nationally allocated quota is further referenced to the historical fishing patterns of each country. The overall TAC is fixed annually by the EU Council of Ministers (with recommendations from the EU Commission and its scientific body and from ICES and its scientists). After quotas are fixed by the Council of Ministers, each EU member country is responsible for policing its own quota. Each country distributes its quota allocation among its own fishermen using different systems.

 Who owns the UK’s fishing quotas?

Now that the ability to fish is controlled by the quota system the question of who ‘owns’ these quotas becomes pertinent (‘owns’ means allocated, but these allocations are commercially tradeable between fishermen) and equally relevant is the question, widely argued by many small boat fishermen, of whether the allocation of the national quota by the UK government to UK’s small boat fishermen is fairly determined and distributed. At present, small boat fishermen receive just 6% of the national quota.

Greenpeace, in an Unearthed report, published 11th October 2018, has analysed the ownership of the UK’s fishing quotas. The report considers the issue from a nation-wide perspective as well as from the standpoint of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland individually. Their findings are recorded below.

The investigation found:

  • Over a quarter (29%) of the UK’s fishing quota is owned or controlled by just five families on the Sunday Times Rich List.
  • This group also has minority investments in companies and fishing vessel partnerships that hold a further 8% of the country’s fishing quota. This means companies holding over a third (37%) of the UK’s fishing quota are wholly or partly owned by this tiny handful of wealthy families.
  • Over half (13) of the UK’s 25 largest quota-holders are linked to one of the biggest criminal over-fishing scams ever to reach the British courts. These 13 businesses have shareholders, directors, or vessel partners who were convicted (in cases heard between 2011–2012) following the “Operation Trawler” police investigation into industrial-scale landings of illegally over-quota fish (or “black fish”) in Scotland.
  • Those with the biggest hoards of quota can make millions leasing their fishing quota without casting a net. One company — which holds over half (55%) of Northern Ireland’s quota — recently disposed of its boat and earned £7m in a year from its quota while waiting for a new one. (See Northern Ireland section below).
    Scotland (the UK’s largest fishing nation, with two-thirds of all quota):
  • In Scotland, the concentration of fishing rights in the hands of Rich List families is even more acute. Five families on the Sunday Times Rich List own or control a third (33%) of all Scottish quota. When taking into account minority stakes, companies wholly or partly owned by these families hold close to half (45%) of all Scottish quota.
  • In 2012 four members of one of these families, the Tait family, received fines and confiscation orders totalling more than £800,000 for their role in landing undeclared fish as part of the “black fish” scandal. Unearthed’s investigation reveals that the Tait family’s Klondyke Fishing Company is now the third-largest quota holder in the UK and has paid out dividends totalling £56m over the past five years. Peter Tait, 50, reportedly purchased Scotland’s most expensive house in 2014.
  • Brexit Flotilla: the Christina S trawler was a flagship in the “Brexit Flotilla” of boats which sailed up the Thames with Nigel Farage in 2016, calling for Britain to leave the EU to improve access to fish. Ernest Simpson (71) and his son Allan Simpson (49), who are partners in the partnership that operates the vessel, were ordered to pay more than £850,000 in fines and confiscation orders for their role in the black fish scam.
  • The Christina S vessel partnership, in which English Rich List fishing baron Andrew Marr also has a stake, is the sixth-largest quota holder in Scotland.
    England (the UK’s second-largest fishing nation, with 24% of all quota):
  • In England, around half (49%) of fishing quota is held by Dutch, Icelandic and Spanish companies, with a further 30% owned by English and Scottish Rich List families.
  • More than half (53%) of England’s fishing quota is in the hands of just three companies.
    Northern Ireland (the UK’s third-largest fishing nation, with 9% of all quota):
  • Over half (55%) of Northern Ireland’s quota is hoarded onto a single trawler: The Voyager.
  • The Voyager Fishing Company is one of the top 10 quota-holders in the UK.
  • In late 2015, the owners disposed of this vessel and ordered a replacement. Despite not having a vessel for the full financial year following this, the company collected nearly £7 million from leasing out quota, reporting operating profits of £2.5 million.

Greenpeace’s view of what the Unearthed report has revealed is summarised by Will McCullum, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK:

“This stunning sell-off of British waters by our own Government is a national disgrace and an economic, social and environmental tragedy.

“Successive governments have presided over a monumental mismanagement of this precious public resource — destroying the livelihoods of local and inshore fishermen, eroding coastal communities and encouraging unsustainable fishing, while allowing a wealthy cabal of fishing barons to become the UK’s ‘Codfathers’. How long before the Government stops blaming other countries, looks at its own broken system, accepts responsibility for fixing it and creates a fairer and more sustainable distribution of fishing quota across the UK?

“Many of these companies were amongst those touting the opportunity to ‘take back control’ of our waters by leaving the EU. They’re taking politicians and regular fishermen for a ride, because they know exactly who’s in control. And the same politicians who slammed Europe for breaking Britain’s fishing sector are the ones restricting the majority of fishing quota to this handful of wealthy families. It’s a betrayal of Britain’s fishermen.

“When Greenpeace took the Government to court in 2015, they had the gall to say that the UK’s fishing industry was all in order. They were slammed by a European Court for claiming fishing quota was distributed in a transparent and objective way.

“With the odds stacked against them, is it any wonder that fishermen across the UK have been run out of business, or that coastal economies have collapsed and the communities that they support have been hollowed out?

“If the Government cares about coastal communities they need to use the Fisheries Bill to reduce the power of these ‘Codfathers’. We need a fair distribution of fishing quota to local, low-impact, fishers to boost coastal economies, reduce the environmental impact and help rebuild fading seaside towns.”


Source: Greenpeace news release, 11th October 2018. For further details see https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2018/10/11/fishing-quota-uk-defra-michael-gove/


Marinet observes:
There is no doubt that UK fisheries are in crisis.

It is a crisis born of a collapse in stocks due to over-fishing, mismanagement of stocks by successive government and some fishermen both before and especially during membership of the Common Fisheries Policy; and, as the Greenpeace Unearthed report has revealed, due to the fact that the privatisation of the right to fish has largely fallen into the hands of a small number of companies whose principal maxim is profit whilst the small boat fisherman, more likely to take a less profit-orientated and a more sustainable ecosystem-based approach to fishing, has been marginalised and is no longer a force within the UK fishing fleet.

Marinet has recorded its view of how the UK fishing industry should be managed in a publication UK seas in crisis : will Brexit change things?

It is clear that radical reform is required. The question is whether the new opportunity provided by Brexit — a return of sovereignty to the UK in the management of its fisheries — will be realised by the exit arrangements; and if this is so, whether government will have the will power and sense of principle in economic and social terms to institute reform in the matter of who is allocated the rights to fish.

Should this not occur then it is clear that the long-term decline in the ecological health of our seas will continue. This is because fisheries are key in their ecological well-being.

Failure to address these issues means the prospects for our seas, which are already bleak, will darken even further.


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3 Responses to “Who owns the UK fishing industry and its fishing quotas?”

Mr James Whitherspoon
Comment posted on 16th February 2022

Many thanks for your message, Kindly fine
attached quote request and get back to me with your quote asap.
Best regards
Mr James Whitherspoon
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Colin Lawson
Comment posted on 30th September 2020

In the previous response John Wright referred to: “our fraudulent membership of the EEC/ EU”. Would be good if he could explain / justify this comment. Thanks

John Wright
Comment posted on 27th June 2020

It appears to me that ‘Greenpeace’s Unearthed’ post has upset many in the Rich List community & they have hit back by attempting to discredit Greenpeace, with some success? While it is true, much of Britain’s problem relating to fishing hinges around these Rich Listers, the fact remains it was our fraudulent membership of the EEC/ EU that opened the door to foreign incursions into our traditional waters, leading to the EU’s ludicrous rules & regs, quota’s & grotesque throwaway impositions that not only decimated our fishing industry, but inevitably led to those smart Alec’s being able to form Corporate style empires that now are certain to fight hard against any changes our Nation should employ, but will find extremely difficult to impose upon our exit from the EU.
As I understand currently, these Rich List boats appear to prefer landing quite large catches in foreign ports, probably because they may get better prices? If this is the case, then one way of approaching a fairer distribution is to penalise those boats that regularly favour landing their catches abroad by imposing a foreign landing tariff on them!
It might work & something needs to be done soon.

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