One particularly welcome part of the new UK Seafood Fund is the £24 million allocated to Fishing Industry Science Partnerships. Around half of this will go to the continue of the Fisheries Innovation Fund, but the remainder is allocated for Fisheries Science Partnerships. This is good news but, as ever, a good idea can be spoiled by poor implementation.
Fisheries Industry Science Partnerships
The NFFO can claim some credit for the focus of fisheries science partnerships, having argued passionately for funding to continue one of the most successful government initiatives in fisheries over the last two decades: the Defra/Cefas/Industry Fisheries Science Partnership.
The difficulty we now face is that the mechanism for distributing the circa £12 million through a competitive bidding process risks excluding many individual fishing vessel operators and only favouring research institutions, NGOs and the better organised parts of the fishing industry, who are geared up to deal with the complex public procurement bidding systems. Most individual fishing businesses have neither the time nor expertise to access the funding under this type of system.
Fisheries Science Partnership
The original FSP, established first in 2004, under pressure from the NFFO, ensured regional and sectoral equity by explicitly taking these factors into account. The FSP Steering Group made an effort to direct funding to areas and fleets who may have lost out in earlier rounds. Over time there was a balance and fairness.
At the heart of the original FSP lay several core principles:
- The scheme was designed to help answer issues raised by the industry itself
- Data gaps would be addressed in a scientifically valid way
- Fishing vessels would be employed to undertake the data gathering under scientific supervision.
- Results would be formally reported and disseminated
- A Steering Group with industry representation would ensure fairness and relevance in the selection of projects when these were oversubscribed (they were always oversubscribed)
The result was what was described in learned journals as “ground-breaking participatory fisheries research”. In addition to the data and knowledge generated, strengthening stock assessments (and therefore better fisheries management) was the trust and cooperation that each FSP project generated between fisheries scientists and fishing vessel operators, that hadn’t previously existed. For more than a decade-and-a-half the FSP funded around 10 projects each year in all parts of the fleet and right across England and Wales, until eventually the budgets were cut from £1 million per year to a small fraction of that.
Our fear is that the new arrangements to allocate FSP projects through a competitive bidding system will retain the FSP title but not the fairness and relevance that lay at the heart of the original partnership. It would be tragic if this big political gesture of confidence in the future of the fishing industry only answered questions important to those outside the industry but excluded the very people it was designed to help.
There may still be time to safeguard the equity and relevance of the new FISP. The NFFO is in discussion with Defra about our concerns. The worry is that the giant and inflexible government procurement process and a system of competitive bidding will exclude many of the very people it is designed to help. That would be a waste and a missed opportunity.
The elegant lamps on Bridlington seafront stand in testimony to what can go wrong when good intentions are misdirected into futile gestures that fail to benefit the people intended.