Tracking app could scupper UK fishing before any 'Brexit bonus'

As the UK leaves hated EU fishing policies in Brexit's wake, fishermen say a new app could sink their way of life.

    Many in Britain's tiny fishing industry hated European Union rules, but say a new app imposed by the United Kingdom's government could undermine any advantage to leaving the EU trading bloc [File: Peter Nicholls/Reuters]
    Many in Britain's tiny fishing industry hated European Union rules, but say a new app imposed by the United Kingdom's government could undermine any advantage to leaving the EU trading bloc [File: Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

    Fishermen in the United Kingdom fear a new tracking app could sink their way of life before the UK fleet can enjoy its much-heralded "Brexit bonus".

    Skippers of more than 2,100 vessels in England have been ordered by the British government to use the Catch App in a bid to collect more detailed information on how much fish is being caught by small-scale fishermen.

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    Concerned industry representatives say the technology roll-out could sound the death knell for traditional fishing, just as Britain prepares to cut itself from the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

    The fishing industry accounts for around 0.1 percent of the UK's gross domestic product - a tiny sector of the national economy, but one that dominates coastal communities. Long-running dissatisfaction with European quotas became emblematic of anti-EU feeling in the run-up to the Brexit referendum - and has remained so ever since.

    The UK, after December 31 of this year, will be exempt from the much-derided rules set by Brussels, which dictate how much and where trawlermen can fish. UK government ministers will be free to set their own fisheries stipulations.

    British fishermen hope to be able to catch more fish as a result, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisting the UK would "take back control" of fishing in waters up to 200 nautical miles (370km) from its coastline after Brexit.

    Scotland's fishing industry worried about future post-Brexit [2:44]

    But such divergence from the EU has a knock-on impact in much larger industries.

    When Britain's giant financial services sector loses out on privileged access to EU customers from next January onward, firms will be able to service those clients only in subsectors where rules are deemed "equivalent".

    UK finance minister Sajid Javid on Tuesday urged the EU to consider Britain's financial sector "equivalent", based on Brussels acknowledging that UK regulation is as robust as that of the EU.

    However, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said London should be "under no illusion" on financial services as there would be "no general, global, permanent equivalence" with Britain.

    Britain and the EU have agreed to talks over industry equivalence by the end of June, but Brussels says actual financial market access will be linked to broader trade issues such as fishing rights.  

    Threat of 'criminalisation'

    Back on the British coast, furious officials have accused the UK fishing regulator, the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), of having "torpedoed" the survival chances of the English industry with the imposition of its 1.8 million pound ($2.3m) Catch App.

    Crews of boats 10 metres long and smaller - 80 percent of all UK vessels - are being forced to use the app to record the weight of their catch accurately, or risk a criminal record and fine.

    The Coastal Producer Organisation, representing close to 280 fishermen who operate out of under-10m boats, said the threat of criminalisation poses a danger to the future of fishing communities.

    Chief executive Jim Pettipher told the PA news agency: "Just when the UK's fleet of long-suffering day boat fishermen were expecting to finally catch a break with a prospective Brexit bonus, instead they're getting torpedoed by the MMO, which has randomly introduced its Catch App.

    "No other boats under 10 metres in Europe are subject to this regime, nor even in Scotland or Wales. It's madness.

    "Yet again it is the coastal communities and a traditional way of life that will lose out."

    As a condition of licences granted to fishermen, the regulator has the power to prosecute and demand heavy fines, rising up to 100,000 pounds ($130,000) in the worst cases, for those found to have inputted weights into the smartphone app that are wrong by a margin of 10 percent or more.

    But small vessels, sometimes staffed by just a single crew member, rarely have weighing scales on board due to space restrictions, meaning submitted weights are likely to be estimates - a factor further increasing the likelihood of incorrect data being submitted.

    Large trawlers, which hold the vast majority of the UK's quota, are exempt from having to record any species caught weighing less than 50kg.

    At the very moment when we have left the EU and its real or imagined burdens, the government is implementing the biggest piece of red tape seen by the industry.

    Luke Pollard, shadow environment secretary

    David Pessell, whose company Plymouth Trawler Agents (PTA) auctioned 16 million pounds ($21m) worth of fish last year, said older fishermen were considering tying up their vessels for good.

    "Many of the small boat operators are approaching the end of their working life," he told PA.

    "We know that the MMO was told before they started this whole exercise that, for at least some, the new app could be the final straw. They chose to completely disregard this."

    Shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard, who has previously called for the Catch App to be scrapped, accused ministers of introducing more stringent "red tape" than the EU ever had.

    "At the very moment when we have left the EU and its real or imagined burdens, the government is implementing the biggest piece of red tape seen by the industry," said the Labour Party spokesman.

    "This is not an EU decision, this is a UK decision. You couldn't make it up."

    Fisheries minister George Eustice, who has oversight of the MMO, was questioned in the House of Commons last week about removing the risk of criminality for seafarers, but he defended the app's implementation.

    The issue is expected to be raised again by MPs during the fisheries debate in Parliament on Wednesday.

    Brexit fishing protest - reuters
    Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the United Kingdom would 'take back control' of fishing in its exclusive economic zone - up to 200 nautical miles (370km) from the UK's coastline - after the country leaves the European Union [Duncan McGlynn/Pool/Reuters]

    The MMO has made fresh assurances to fishermen that it will not be heavy-handed when it comes to prosecuting Catch App users.

    Tom McCormack, MMO chief executive, said: "Fishermen who are recording catches to the best of their ability have no need to worry.

    "If and when there is ever a need to consider enforcement or prosecution actions - for example, someone persistently misreporting or not recording at all - that decision would be taken on a wide range of evidence."

    Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, said he supported the push towards securing better information about catches so that quotas could be handed out more fairly to smaller vessels post-2020.

    While the fishing boss admitted there was the "possibility of prosecution" for submitting inaccurate estimates in the app, Deas said he was willing to accept the MMO's reassurances.

    "There have been assurances given and my inclination is to take them at face value," he said.

    "The MMO have admitted mistakes and made it very clear that this is not about criminalising an industry."

    But a spokesmen for small-scale operations said guarantees from civil servants would not provide fishermen with legal cover.

    The PTA's Pessell said: "What is promised today will be forgotten tomorrow and fishermen will be criminalised for failing to do the impossible." 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies