At a time when we’re all concerned about what goes into our food, the phrase "it's not what it says on the tin,” has never been more appropriate. Our latest investigation into one of the most powerful and influential fishing industry bodies in the UK has exposed a clique of foreign fishing barons, including companies linked to illegal and destructive fishing.
It’s a classic case of smoke and mirrors, and at stake is one of our greatest national assets – fish.
This is likely to be the first time anyone has scrutinised the claims and membership of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) despite its role as one of the government’s main industry advisory bodies on fishing matters. I'm sure the government will be as surprised as I was at what we uncovered.
The NFFO claims to be "the representative body for fishermen in England, Wales and Northern Ireland," looking out for the interests of boats both small and large. An ambitious role we thought, so we decided to investigate how true this was.
Over many long months looking into the secret membership of the NFFO, by analysing complex company accounts and shipping registers, we were all astonished to discover that:
- Over half of the NFFOs fleet is controlled by foreign fishing interests. This means that, whilst these boats sail under the Union Jack, they are ultimately controlled by companies or individuals from other countries. This means they use the UK's fishing quota, and will often fish in UK waters; however, they probably contribute next to nothing to the UK economy. The kicker here is that these boats are some of the largest and most powerful in the fleet.
- The NFFO is inflating its claims as to how many fishermen’s associations it actually represents. We were able to verify that 11 out of 20 listed on the NFFO's website are in fact not members. These include associations that are no longer members, have never been members or don’t even exist anymore.
- The NFFO is working against the interests of small-scale fishermen. In a letter leaked to our investigators, we discovered that the NFFO is trying to deny small-scale fishermen wider representation on key political forums in Europe. This is really significant at a time when the overarching rules governing fishing in Europe are being reformed.
- The NFFO represents vessels involved in illegal fishing on a large scale. For example, the O Genita and its Spanish Vidal family owners – who we exposed in another investigation last year – is an NFFO member and was central to the largest illegal fishing case in British maritime history with penalties of £1.62m.
What does this all mean?
Our investigation reveals that the more sustainable part of our fishing fleet is being shut out of the very system that dictates whether they prosper or go bust. The NFFO is giving the impression that it represents most of the fleet and that it's a friend of small scale boats, but this investigation shows that their membership is dominated by large powerful, often foreign controlled vessels, and they just pay lip service to the interests of the small scale fleet.
In a situation where about two-thirds of Europe’s fish stocks are overfished, it is crucial we defend the interests of those that fish in a more sustainable way and with a lower impact on the environment. Over three-quarters of the fishing boats in the UK fleet are considered small scale. They are vital to our fishing industry as they support more jobs – in England this fleet represents 65% of jobs at sea – and they help to maintain the social cultural and economic fabric of the coastal communities we all love so much.
This sector is desperately trying to forge itself better representation at a political level to try to match the might of the NFFO, so it's simply shocking that the NFFO is trying to prevent this.
Of course, fisheries minister Richard Benyon could reassure everyone that he isn't simply taking his cues from a one-sided lobby group. What he should be looking for from the NFFO is transparency: a public list of members, for instance, or corrections for the false claims it's made about various fishermen's associations it represents.
What’s in the tin really matters, and it seems we really have opened a can of worms with this one.