Rising diesel prices could soon stop Britain’s fishing crews from setting sail as it becomes too costly to fish, boat captains warned this weekend.
Trawlers and commercial fishers are now struggling under the weight of price rises that mean in many cases tens of thousands of pounds extra in diesel for a fishing trip leading to take-home pay that is below the minimum wage. It’s a blow to an already struggling industry that was hoping for better times after Britain’s exit from the European Union.
The cost of the type of diesel used by fishing boats has more than doubled in the past eight months and a rise of just 7p more would make it uneconomical for some trawlers to operate, according to Barry Young, managing director of Brixham Trawler Agents, which runs the fish market in Brixham, Devon, England’s most valuable fishing port.
“It’s very fragile at the moment,” he said. “It wouldn’t take a lot to push it over the edge. Our fuel price [for red diesel] is £1.08. If it goes up to £1.15, boats will stop. So another seven pence and they’re done.”
The biggest trawler in Brixham, the Julie of Ladram, returned to harbour after seven days at sea earlier this month, and came close to making a loss. The captain, Sean Beck, took home just £440 for a week’s work – the equivalent of £2.60 an hour for being responsible for the ship and crew 24 hours a day. “It’s a stressful time for my family. And it’s stressful at sea – fishing’s not always great. As a skipper it’s a big responsibility to make the boat pay and make sure everybody gets a wage.”
Crews work on a share of profits – the Julie of Ladram’s owner gets 60%, and as captain, Beck gets 10.5%. There is a sliding scale for the crew, down to a minimum of about 4%.
Vessels unload their catch at Brixham fish market. The fish is sold at auction for a commission. The harbour takes a share, and there are costs for leasing the boat, food and other expenses. But fuel is the main cost.
That makes the Julie of Ladram the canary in the coalmine for Brixham’s fishing industry. It has the highest fuel costs because it tows heavy gear along the seabed to catch flat fish: species such as plaice, sole and monkfish. Last week, Beck returned with one of his best catches of the year, fetching £87,000 at auction. But the boat needs 40,000 litres of diesel, so the cost has gone from about £20,000 a trip to £45,000.
“We’re setting out wondering if we’re going to get paid or not,” Beck said. “But I’m very aware that we are more fortunate than some people.” He has had a good wage until the fuel crisis. “Some people are really going to struggle to eat or heat.” If boats like the Julie stop fishing, that means welders, fish processors, forklift drivers and restaurants will have less business.
Young said that the only thing saving the industry was the fact that customers were paying record amounts for fish.
“Prices are very very good,” he said. “We’re very lucky to get the support of buyers throughout the UK and Europe that are paying really good money for the fish, which is making it viable to go to sea.
“They’re still going out, but reluctantly. They’re just going out to pay the bills, the mortgages and loans that still need to be met, even if they’re not getting a wage.”
Beck said journeys are now taking longer, which also increases fuel costs. “They used to say you’d do three days to cover your costs and three days for profit. Now you’re doing seven days to cover your costs.”
The high costs are not only hitting trawlers and commercial fishers – anglers and pleasure boats are also feeling the pinch, with some tourists cancelling bookings after learning of price increases to cover fuel.
The pressure is taking its toll on fishers’ mental health, according to Sarah Ready of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association (Nutfa), which represents those fishing in boats under 10 metres. She runs a helpline for people in the industry and is dealing with two cases of bankruptcy, debts and other problems.
“I don’t think I’ve even seen the mental health of fishermen as bad as it is at the moment,” she said. A huge expansion in red tape means many are overwhelmed with paperwork, she said, and many were being caught out.
“There’s a huge amount of depression within the fishing communities. Often when people do have depression and mental health problems it impacts the family as well and that spirals into family breakdown. Often you’re not just dealing with debt but all sorts of other issues.”
Jerry Percy, Nutfa’s chief executive, said: “We are in an existential crisis as far as the small-scale fleet is concerned. At the moment we’re living on a knife edge because we have incredibly high fuel prices and no signs of a fuel subsidy from the government.”