More than a quarter of the United Kingdom’s fishing quota is in the hands of a tiny group of the country’s wealthiest families, an Unearthed investigation has found.

Just five families on the Sunday Times Rich List hold or control 29% of the UK’s fishing quota.

The finding comes from a new Unearthed investigation that traced the owners of more than 95% of UK quota holdings – including, for the first time, those of Scotland, the UK’s biggest fishing nation.

It reveals that more than two-thirds of the UK’s fishing quota is controlled by just 25 businesses – and more than half of those are linked to one of the biggest criminal overfishing scams ever to reach the British courts.

Meanwhile, in England nearly 80% of fishing quota is held by foreign owners or domestic Rich List families, and more than half of Northern Ireland’s quota is hoarded onto a single trawler.

The news comes as the government is preparing to publish a new fisheries bill, which will set the legal foundations for the UK’s fishing industry after Brexit. But while the government is hoping it can net access to more fishing rights in the Brexit negotiations, it has said the new bill will not see any redistribution of the UK’s existing quota rights. 

As Unearthed’s investigation reveals, this would leave the bulk of UK fishing rights in the hands of a small domestic elite and a handful of foreign multinationals.

Responding to Unearthed’s findings, shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman said ministers needed to take “urgent action to use the powers that they have domestically to redistribute fishing quota to deliver a fairer deal for smaller boats”.

“Fishing was the poster child of the Leave campaign and [environment secretary Michael] Gove has already broken promises he made to the industry to secure full control of our waters during the transition,” she continued. “With all the talk of ‘take back control’, ministers have the power to distribute UK quota now and put the smaller-scale fleet first. So why wasn’t it mentioned in their white paper?

“This [Unearthed story] shows that, while it points the fingers at others, this government is to blame for a sector rigged in the interests of the super-rich. Any future fishing policy must consider how new and existing quota can be more fairly distributed and we will treat this as a priority in the upcoming fisheries bill.”

The investigation found:

  • The five largest quota-holders control more than a third of UK fishing quota
  • Four of the top five belong to families on the Sunday Times Rich List
  • The fifth is a Dutch multinational whose UK subsidiary – North Atlantic Fishing Company – controls around a quarter of England’s fishing quota
  • Around half of England’s quota is ultimately owned by Dutch, Icelandic, or Spanish interests
  • More than half (13) of the top 25 quota holders have directors, shareholders, or vessel partners who were convicted of offences in Scotland’s £63m “black fish” scam – a huge, sophisticated fraud that saw trawlermen and fish processors working together to evade quota limits and land 170,000 tonnes of undeclared herring and mackerel
  • One of the flagships of the “Brexit flotilla” – which sailed up the Thames in 2016 to demand the UK’s exit from the EU – is among the UK’s 10 biggest quota-holders
  • Around 29% of UK fishing quota is directly controlled by Rich List families. Some of these families have investments in dozens of other fishing companies, meaning companies holding 37% of UK quota are wholly or partly owned by these Rich List families.
What is a fixed quota allocation?

Most fishing rights in the UK are distributed by fixed quota allocations (FQAs). An FQA gives the holder the right to land a certain share of the UK’s “total allowable catch” (TAC) of a particular stock. The TAC for each stock varies from year to year, based on scientific advice and negotiations in Brussels. There is an active market in the trading and leasing of FQAs.

The latest revelations follow Unearthed’s 2016 investigation into English quota holdings which revealed that a tiny fiberglass dinghy apparently “held” more than a fifth of the fishing quota for the entire South-West.

Now, Unearthed’s first UK-wide dive into the opaque world of fishing rights has uncovered further striking statistics.

Those with the biggest hoards of quota can earn millions leasing it to others without casting a net. In one recent case a company got rid of its boat and – while waiting for a new one – carried on earning millions from its quota alone.

That boat, the Voyager, holds more than half (55%) of Northern Ireland’s fishing quota. In late 2015 the owners disposed of their old, 76m trawler and ordered a replacement . Company accounts show that the new Voyager was not delivered until September 2017, and in the meantime, the company made money by leasing out the quota.

In 2016-17 the company made an income of nearly £7m from its quota – reporting an operating profit of £2.5m – despite having no vessel for the full financial year.  

Despite holding more than half of the country’s quota, the new 86m-long Voyager has not landed its catches in Northern Ireland, because it is too big for Kilkeel Harbour. Instead the vessel operates out of the Republic of Ireland port of Killybegs.

Unearthed approached Voyager Fishing Company and its owners, but they were unavailable for comment.

The black fish millionaires

In Scotland – the biggest fishing nation in the UK, with two-thirds of the quota – the domination of the fishing industry by Rich List families is most pronounced.

Five Rich List families control a third of Scottish quota and have minority investments in companies that hold a further 11%. This means, in total, companies holding close to half (45%) of all Scottish fishing quotas are wholly or partly owned by five wealthy families.

But the investigation also reveals how many of those at the centre of one of Scottish fishing’s most infamous episodes – the black fish scandal – continue to dominate the industry.