The UK's biggest fishing vessels

Today, the latest addition to the UK’s fishing fleet was officially named at a ceremony in Greenwich. Kirkella (H7) is 81 metres long, which makes for a pretty impressive sight going through London’s Tower Bridge, and with an onboard fish processing factory it makes for an impressive operation (do check out the video tours on the UK Fisheries website and the photos from the Hull Live website). For an industry that has taken centre stage during the Brexit debate, the commissioning and naming of a new fishing vessel sends important signals about how parts of the fishing industry perceive the opportunities of leaving the European Union.

But the claim made by much of the media covering the naming event, that the vessel is the ‘UK’s largest fishing trawler’, didn’t quite seem to add up to me, so I looked at the data.

So, is Kirkella really the ‘UK’s largest fishing trawler’?

The short answer is ‘it’s certainly big, but it’s not the biggest’.

All UK fishing vessels have to be registered and a list is maintained by the Marine Management Organisation. This contains three pieces of information which can be used to assess ‘bigness’:

  • Vessel length (in metres).
  • Registered tonnage.
  • Engine power (in kilowatts).

By none of the measures Kirkella is ‘the biggest’ (though it does feature in the top 10 for length and tonnage).

However, when looking at the fishing industry as a whole, Kirkella, and other ‘super trawlers’ like it, are in a different league from the majority of the UK’s fishing fleet. Indeed, as of April 2019, 79% of the fleet was 10 meteres or under in length, with an overall mean fishing vessel length of 9.6 metres.

Does size matter?

The focus given to the fishing industry as a result of the Brexit debate has drawn wider attention to several more nuanced questions about the future of UK fisheries policy. One issue has been a greater awareness of diversity within the UK fishing industry, of which vessel size is one factor.

For example, vessel length currently plays an important role in determining how fisheries are managed in the UK, leading to questions about whether crude categories, such as ‘under 10 metres’, are the best way to go about this - see Peter Davies, Chris Williams, Griffin Carpenter and Bryce Stewart’s recent paper for a good discussion on that particular issue. And, as pointed out to me earlier today there are also question around the most suitable measures to use when assessing vessels’ impact on fisheries - a vessel’s size will certainly affect how much fish it can catch, but so will its gear and how much effort (i.e. time at sea) it can put in.

Another issue is a question of fairness. Much of the UK’s fishing quota is concerntrated among a small number of companies. This has ultimately landed in the hands of larger vessels, thereby restricting opportunities for smaller vessels and/or forcing them to target non-quota species.

In the wider Brexit debate, one of the big opportuinities eyed by the fishing industry is to get access to more quota as the UK will be able to determine who can fish in its exclusive economic zone. But Brexit also comes with risks as the UK’s fishing industry depends on the easy trade, particuarly with the rest of the EU. These risks disproportionately fall onto smaller vessels, which are often more dependent on export markets (especially for shellfish) and don’t have the financial resillience to weather disruption. The result is it is likely to be smaller vessels and coastal communities which stand to lose out from Brexit, while larger vessels could stand to benefit from increased fishing opportunities.

Kirkella’s naming also highlights a number of other issues in UK fisheries, such as vessel flag and ownership, the extent to which fishing vessels’ activities are economically linked to their home ports, the sustainability and environmental of large super trawlers, and ultimately where they have access to fish (by all accounts Kirkella will be spending most of its time in Norwegian and Greenland waters).

But the size issue here highlights an important part of the Brexit and fisheries debate which often goes overlooked: that the power to address many of the imbalances within UK fisheries has always been within the UK’s gift to address. Indeed, Brexit isn’t necessary to address the imbalances within the UK’s fishing industry. That said, Brexit arguably presents an opportunity for a wholesale rethink of the UK’s approach to fisheries policy - size will ultuimately have to be a feature of this. The challenge here will be to find a balance that will work for all within the industry and the communities which rely on it.