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Commercial Fishing


The NFFO Considers Sustainability and the Environment

The NFFO Considers Sustainability and the Environment and the Role of the Fishing Industry.

The UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow this coming October and November, will bring world attention to the link between greenhouse gasses and climate change. The UK Government will want to earn the prestige associated with hosting a successful summit. A successful summit will include commitments to new ambitious targets for the reduction of greenhouse gasses – in particular carbon dioxide.

What are the implications of these political commitments for the fishing industry?

It is certain that our industry will have to make its own efforts to decarbonise, but at the same time we will also face a huge challenge as the massive expansion of offshore windfarms and other marine renewables, swallow large areas to date used for fishing.

Fishing and Climate Change

A climate emergency is under way, and it is inconceivable that the fishing industry will be exempt from finding ways to reduce dependence on fossil fuels – especially diesel. Although modern fuel-efficient engines are available on the market, we remain far away from an off-the-shelf solution consistent with carbon net-zero targets. As these obligations are likely to become more stringent following the COP summit, locating solutions will become an urgent overriding imperative.

In addition to pressures on the fishing industry to make its contribution to reach net zero, climate change already carries multiple implications for fishing. These include observable distributional shifts in species, acidification of the oceans and displacement pressures arising from marine protected areas and the rapidly expanding offshore renewables industry.

Then there are two factors which work in opposite directions.

  • The emerging but so far less than definitive science which suggests that seabed disturbance releases stored carbon. The significance and scale of this factor has yet to be determined by scientists.
  • Global demand for high quality protein from wild fish, and the recognition that substituting fish to meet calls for a large-scale shift to a vegan diet, would inevitably result in an increase in agriculture-based food production systems. Many of these carry a much higher carbon footprint than fishing.

Against this background, apart from our desire to do the right thing within a complex and politically charged atmosphere, there is clearly going to be huge political pressure on the fishing industry to minimise its carbon footprint. The Fisheries Act (2020) explicitly contains climate change as one of its eight core objectives – all future fisheries legislation made under the Act will have to address the implications for climate change.


The specific challenge that we face is to find ways of adapting to reduce reliance on fossil fuels that are compatible with an economically viable fishing industry.

Given the time pressures generated by the climate emergency, we suggest that decarbonisation will be most effectively done through a partnership between the fishing industry and government. The EU has already prioritised decarbonisation in its new funding instrument, the EMFAF with a budget of 6.1 billion euros for the next six years.

As an independent coastal state, outside the EU, the UK will not be contributing to that particular budget, but the question of public finance, how much and where it is directed, is likely to be central to the success of any decarbonisation strategy in the UK.


Directing funding into environmental stewardship, is one model for change that has successfully been used in other sectors, by creating economic incentives that are aligned with the desired objectives. The use of incentivised stewardship has an established history in agriculture. Agriculture in the UK is now largely organised around public subsidies which underpin concrete practises that benefit the environment. Essentially, farmers are paid to depart from a pure economic model of efficiency to build in environmentally desirable agricultural practice.

No such equivalent applies to fishing and, in general, the fishing industry historically has had little interest in a bureaucratic, politically vulnerable, system of monetary subsidies. The time may have arrived, however, to review that position. If fishing businesses can’t make the transition to net zero whist maintaining economic viability, it may be time to look at some form of government support scheme.

A recent report by WWF/ RSPB and the Marine Conservation Society makes clear that there are no off-the-shelf solutions. Hydrogen engines, wind-assisted propulsion and a range of other developments show promise – but the technology is not at a stage that it could simply be transferred into existing fleets. From this, it is clear that research, development and practical trials, will be an urgent priority, as will learning from experience in other countries. Funding, whether from the famous £100 million promised on the hoof by the Prime Minister in the wake of the TCA, or made available from other Treasury pots, could play a pivotal role in putting such initiatives into fast-forward mode. The initial challenge will be how to develop workable solutions (that may involve a reduction in catch, or additional costs) whist maintaining an economically viable fishing business. In this context, financially supported structured scheme to facilitate this type of initiative would ensure volunteer vessels to trial new approaches and overcome short-term financial obstacles to trialling new gears and approaches.

Interim Steps

There are, however, steps that can be taken, even as new technologies and approaches are being developed.

Equipping the current fleet with the most fuel-efficient engines presently available would make sense as an interim step towards net zero. A more coherent and muscular approach to subsidising engine replacement would bring immediate reductions in fuel consumption and should be considered as an urgent interim step. In the longer term, government, science and the fishing industry itself will have to work on solutions, preferably in partnership.

Fisheries Science Partnerships

Fisheries Science Partnerships involving industry participation, government funding and scientific expertise, have been an established and successful model since the NFFO, Defra and Cefas developed the concept in 1994. The time may be ripe to adapt this model to the decarbonisation challenge.  A refreshed Fisheries Science Partnership could:

  1. Investigate promising methods of reducing or eliminating fossil fuels, or minimising seabed impacts
  2. Employ some of the recently announced £24 million government funding to develop fuel reduction concepts to trial level
  3. Use chartered fishing vessels to trial new gears
  4. Use government financial support to cover costs and economic loss in catch attributable to the new method during the development phase
  5. If the method involves a permanent reduction in catch (and to ensure the effort is not diverted into other fisheries) any vessel adopting the new gear would receive financial support – in effect an equivalent system to that which applies in agriculture

The core of this new approach would be to harness the fisheries science partnership approach, first to develop carbon neutral methods of fishing and then to use stewardship finance to encourage its adoption across the fleets.


Apart from decarbonising its own activities, the fishing industry faces a huge displacement challenge from the expansion of offshore renewables and marine protected areas. The NFFO has already expressed itself in strong terms about the failure of the marine planning system to protect the most important fishing grounds.

The failure to address displacement at the planning stage carries many potential unintended adverse consequences. One of them is to increase steaming time to available fishing grounds. Much more coherent, joined-up government policies are required to minimise displacement effects.

Unintended Consequences

Those familiar with fisheries management are acutely aware that management measures can often generate unintended consequences, which can undermine the objective sought. Decarbonisation is no less tricky. Displacement from customary fishing grounds can mean longer steaming times to other grounds. Less productive grounds can require longer periods fishing to generate the same catch. All this leads to higher emissions. To point this out is not to make a facile argument against marine protected areas or windfarms but it is a plea to understand the complex of issues in the round. Necessary trade-offs between different objectives are part and parcel of dealing with real-world complexity.


A climate emergency is upon us. Fishing will be expected to play its part. The most effective solutions will be found where there is a partnership between the fishing industry and government. As an interim step, government should be incentivising the replacement of older engines with the most fuel-efficient engines available. As there are no off-the-shelf solutions that would deliver Net Zero in the fishing industry and research, development and practical trials are therefore urgently required. Fishing science partnerships – properly designed and implemented – have a proven track record and could be harnessed as pathfinders to decarbonise the fishing industry. Finally, if the conventional market economic model is incapable of delivering the widespread change necessary to meet the climate emergency, it may be time to consider a system of structures stewardship for the fishing industry that has been employed for several decade in the agriculture industry