I've haddock up to here with UK fisheries policy. Photo: Getty
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Selling off the sea: how our fish lost their freedom to market forces

Over the last two decades, there has been a silent, neoliberal revolution in our oceans.

“We are, quite seriously, on the brink.” Jerry Percy, Executive Director of Low Impact Fishers of Europe, a group representing fishers around the continent, is worried about the future for the UK’s small-scale fleet. “If things don’t change, in some areas we’ll lose the last remnants of what was once a proud and vital industry, needlessly destroyed by government policy.”

Jerry isn’t the only one who’s worried. Greenpeace recently launched a judicial review of UK fisheries policy, arguing that it contravenes European law. “Low-impact fishers represent nearly 80 per cent of the English and Welsh fishing fleet. They operate more sustainably, and they’re integral to the economic and social wellbeing of coastal communities,” says Rukayah Sarumi, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace. “Yet the Government is still allocating the vast majority of fishing-rights to industrial fishing vessels. One trawler alone – the Dutch-controlled Cornelis Vrolijk – receives 23 per cent of England’s quota: almost four times that of England’s entire small-scale fishing fleet.”

How did this situation come about? The answer lies in economics. In the Fifties, economists argued that the problem of diminishing fish stocks brought about by fleet expansion and mass industrialisation should be solved by the market. They proposed that states create a limited right to catch fish that could be bought and sold.

Iceland was one of the first countries to implement this market-based policy in the Eighties. Their fish stocks began to recover, the fishing fleet grew more profitable, and economists pointed to the country as an example of what the market could achieve.

However, the privatisation of once common fishing-rights did not benefit everyone, as anthropologist Dr Niels Einarsson – an expert on Icelandic fisheries policy – describes. “Many fishermen were dispossessed. It even led to a case before the UN Human Rights Committee. This was a huge embarrassment for Iceland: we pride ourselves on social democracy.” As the policy wreaked havoc in Icelandic fishing communities, it also created huge wealth elsewhere. “Banks traded fishing rights as assets. These became valuable derivatives, and the financial sector boomed. Then it all came crashing down.”

After the fishing rights-induced boom and subsequent economic crash in 2008, Icelanders wondered how one of the world’s most equitable societies had become a community of what Niels terms “sea barons and serfs”. A popular revolution in 2009 demanded reform of the fishing-rights market, and the government promised a new, more democratic Iceland, launching the world’s first crowd-sourced constitution. But the market was tenacious. The entire financial system was reliant on fishing-rights, and both the fisheries and democratic reforms failed miserably.

It isn’t just Iceland. All around the world, fishing-rights markets have led to dispossession. In the UK, the price of large fishing boats and their associated right-to-fish has rocketed; young people are priced out, and in many cases only large companies with the backing of banks can buy boats. This has dissuaded young people from fishing careers, and led to uncomfortable murmurs in the industry about the increasing power of the financial sector.

Filipino agency workers have replaced young people who once worked on UK boats. Due to visa requirements, they are often prevented from coming ashore. Workers at sea don’t have to be paid the minimum wage, and last year Police Scotland launched an investigation into employment on fishing boats after reports of slavery and human trafficking.

Alarmed by these changes, the Scottish Government is currently reforming the fishing-rights market. “Ministers are looking to adjust the system in Scotland to better reflect their belief that fishing rights are a national asset,” explains a Scottish Government spokesperson. “Rights should be protected within Scotland for future generations.”

Westminster is also concerned. In 2012, the Secretary of State for the Environment tried to ease the problems of small-scale fishermen by reallocating some English fishing rights. This met a legal challenge from existing rights-holders. The resulting ruling declared it legal for the government to remove rights from vessels when fishermen weren’t using them; but the judge stated that if fishing rights were being used they could be considered possessions, triggering legal obligations.

As Paul Trebilcock of the UK Association of Fish Producers points out: “People need to understand fishermen did not ask for the market system. Yet they have been encouraged by successive governments to buy rights and invest. Many have borrowed, taken out mortgages and reinvested substantial amounts of money in an effort to build legal and sustainable businesses. Is it fair to punish them for this now?”

It is difficult to reform a market once implemented. Greenpeace, who expect to find out the results of the judicial review in autumn, hope that the UK can succeed where Iceland failed, and rein in the market to create a fairer system. “Redistributing quota would create jobs, replenish fish stocks, and encourage sustainable fishing,” says Rukayah, “not doing so could mean devastation for coastal communities.”

Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder