Traditional fishermen 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 to use the Catch Recording App in a bid to collect more detailed information on how much fish is being caught by small-scale fishermen.
And 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 UK will be exempt from the much-derided rules set by Brussels, which dictate how much and where trawlermen can fish, and Government ministers will be free to set their own fisheries stipulations after December 31.
British fishermen hope to be able to catch more fish as a result.
But furious officials have accused the 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 Catch App.
Under 10m boats, which account for 80% 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 Producers Organisation, representing close to 280 fishermen who operate out of under 10m boats, said the threat of criminalisation was 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 10m 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 in the worst cases, for those found to have inputted weights into the smartphone app that are wrong by a margin of 10% or more.
But small vessels, sometimes manned 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 UK quota, are exempt from having to record any species caught weighing less than 50kg.
David Pessell, whose company Plymouth Trawler Agents (PTA) auctioned £16 million 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 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 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 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.
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 (NFFO), said he supported the push towards securing better information about catches so that quota 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, Mr 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 legal cover.
The PTA’s Mr Pessell said: “What is promised today will be forgotten tomorrow and fishermen will be criminalised for failing to do the impossible.”