Using fishing opportunities to support mental health and wellbeing in the Welsh fishing industry

As the UK leaves the European Union, much has been made of the post-Brexit opportunities for new governing legislation. In few industries is this more acutely felt than in the fishing industry, where there have been calls for a “sea of opportunity” as the UK becomes an independent coastal state with control over its waters.

But opportunity for whom? In 2018, we analysed fishing opportunities – the term used for fishing licences, quotas and other access privileges – and found that the Welsh share of UK fishing quota is less than one percent. As such, the gains to the Welsh fishing industry from Brexit may be very little (and the potential export very great) unless the allocation of fishing opportunities within the UK is reformed in parallel.

And within Wales? Earlier this year, we took this analysis of fishing opportunities a step further by designing potential policy options for allocating these opportunities. The report identified several policy options that align with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, especially those supporting new entrants into the fleet.

However, fishing opportunities are just opportunities – a possibility that may or may not be taken. This lingering question was cast in a new light by Public Health Wales and their new report. The report developed a public health framework aimed at prevention (of uncertainty and challenges), protection (against potential impacts), and promotion (of health and wellbeing of fishers and fishing communities). This framework was then applied to five key challenges identified by stakeholders: a lack of empowerment, regulatory burden, sustainability of supply and demand, financial stress, and maintaining good health.

These findings closely align with a recent report from Seafarer’s UK, further establishing the need for resilience in the fishing industry. Perhaps the spotlight Brexit has shone on the fishing industry is also enabling a closer examination of industry challenges.

With these new findings, one is forced to wonder if these challenges will prevent future generations – indeed even younger generations today – from taking up fishing opportunities if they are made available. For the continuing debate on the sharing of post-Brexit fishing opportunities, there are two key implications.

First, it is clear that fishing opportunities by themselves are not enough. While a lack of fishing opportunities – whether small amounts are due to reduced fish populations or shares held by foreign or other UK fleets – is one of the fishing issues that receives the most attention in fisheries management, it is not the only one. A vision of fisheries for the future includes all aspects of fisheries management as well as deeper thinking about how the industry is impacted by policies outside the traditional domains of fisheries management. A report this year by the New Economics Foundation highlights labour relations, for example how fishers organise and are renumerated, as one of these areas.

Second, while noting these caveats, fishing opportunities can be designed to help foster greater resilience. One recurring issue from the latest Public Health Wales report is the ‘boom and bust’ nature of fishing. Not only does this present financial issues, in terms of well-being, booms and busts are felt asymmetrically (busts lower wellbeing more than booms raise it) and there are a whole host of associated behaviours with high income variability, including alcohol and drug use.

To counteract the boom and bust nature of fisheries, market systems (including non-financial markets) can be designed to easily allow for fishing opportunities to be swapped so fishers can use their own quota allocations to better plan their portfolio of quota across different species. Another idea gaining traction is allocating fishing opportunities to incentivise certain fishing practices (similar to eco-schemes in agriculture). Health and safety measures could be added alongside proposals to allocate opportunities to fishing practices that limit ecosystem impacts or contribute more to local economies. (Note that some policy options, for example auction-style systems, may work in the opposite direction by increasing uncertainty.)

With multiple policy options that could be used to support mental health and wellbeing in the Welsh fishing industry, this strengthens the call in the recent Wales Centre for Public Policy report for the coproduction of new systems. Fishers will have a unique and practical view on which policy options could work for them, and importantly future generations, in what is one of the longest running industries in Wales.