Imagine if someone claimed ownership of a percentage of the sparrows in the sky or a share of the deer in our forests? Would this seem absurd to you? I agree.
Unbelievably, this is now set to be the heart of an unprecedented court battle – except that it’s over who ultimately controls the UK’s fishing quota, and therefore who 'owns' the fish in our seas.
The case is a judicial review, and it has been brought by the UK Association of Fish Producer Organisations (UKAPFO) against the government. They represent the heavyweights of the fishing industry, a club of about 15 fish producer organisations who currently control much of the right to fish in the UK.
They want the court to overturn a government decision to give a small amount of unused fishing quota to small boat fishermen, on the basis that it has become UKAFPO’s private property.
But wait, the right to fish is a public good, I hear you cry. It’s held by the government in trust for everybody, which means no-one can 'own' it.
And you're so right. Which is why we're in an unusual alliance with others - namely New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association (Nutfa) and the government itself - who agree.
Not only that, but the outcome of this landmark case could have huge consequences for the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen using vessels under 10m, many of whom fish in a low-impact way.
Despite making up 77% of the fleet, these small scale fishermen currently have access to just 4% of the UKs fishing quota. Many face the prospect of going bust, and the government’s decision to redistribute a bit of fishing quota to their sector would throw them a lifeline.
But the fishing heavyweights are committed to stop the government doing this. They want to split the industry. After hoarding almost the entire wealth of the UK fishing quota, they are now doing everything they can to stop the leftover scraps going to the small boats that desperately need them.
More than this though, they are arguing the principle that fishing quota has essentially been privatised (largely into their hands). With estimates that the value of such a resource might now be worth billions of pounds, the court has an epic case to hear. It may yet come to pass that ‘our seas are for sale’.
Worryingly, this will also ultimately determine how the UK government can manage our fisheries, and whether it can reward low-impact over destructive fishing. Ultimately, if the government loses the power to reallocate quota, then the EU’s new and much applauded proposals to help low-impact fishermen in the reformed Common Fisheries Policy won’t be worth the paper they’re written on.
The outcome of this case will have historic consequences. If the fishing giants get their own way, we might witness the privatisation by stealth of one of the UK’s greatest public goods - the right to fish in our seas - sanctioned by a court ruling.
This would sweep away a thousand years of fishing history in some places, to be replaced by fishing fleets frequently dominated by big vessels with no connection to the local area and often providing no benefit to the local or UK economy.
Or sense might prevail and fish will remain in public hands.
We will be there every step of the way to help ensure history remembers this case as a victory for the public interest. Greedy companies must not be privileged above small scale and sustainable fishermen, or allowed to manipulate the quota system. Low-impact fishermen, the lifeblood of their local communities, deserve a fair catch.