Face to Face with Paul Trebilcock

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As chief executive of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation (CFPO), Paul Trebilcock is in a unique position of being able to influence and support one of Cornwall’s longest established and most important industries.

These are challenging times for the county’s fishermen, however. No longer is it just a case of going out to sea, catching whatever fish and taking them to market. Regulations, quota, red tape, have all made it a far more complex business than, say, 20 years ago.

Things are not quite as bleak, though, as often read in the press. The Cornish fishing industry remains one of the most valuable in the UK, and as one of the largest producer organisations in the country, the CFPO has significant influence, both in London and Brussels.

Trebilcock explains why there are real reasons to be optimistic, the importance of sustainability, how the CFPO have been able increase European quota, and how it fights for the interests of one of Cornwall’s key business sectors, every day.

I guess fishing must be in your blood?

I’ve been here, as CEO of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation (CFPO), since 2002. And yes, I come from a fishing background, and my family are still fishing in Newquay. As I was growing up, I would often go to sea with my dad or my uncle, then when I was about 15 or 16, I bought a small 16 ft boat with my brother, a few crab pots, a few sole nets in the bay up there, basically to make some, well not beer money at 16, but ice cream money, whatever it was!

I then went to university, and in the holidays the boat almost paid for me through university. After that I came back to Newquay for a while, on boats, and then I went to Scotland to work as a fisheries officer!

Why Scotland?

First job that came up!

Bit of a long way away! You couldn’t get much further away in this country!

That’s right, and it was literally right up at the top, on the north western corner! It was just a job that came up. I had done my degree, been fishing again, enjoyed it but it was kind of time to try another side of it. So this was with the Fisheries Protection Agency, it was like poacher turned gamekeeper for a while! But I was only up there 12 months. I had been used to day boats and shell fishing, this was the other end of the scale – 80ft white fish trawlers, making a lot of money and all that sort of stuff.

I then went to work for the Sea Fish Authority in Hull, as a training and safety adviser. Was there for 18 months, two years, then worked for the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, based in Grimsby, and was there for the same sort of time, and then 2002 I came to this job.

Were you never tempted to join the family business?

I maybe still one day go back to it. Weekends and holidays, I still go out with them, and still very much keep my hands wet so to speak. So I never rule out returning to fishing. But I guess what keeps me here is the broader picture. The fishing industry is facing a lot of threats and challenges and I feel where I am now I can perhaps influence for the greater good of the industry in Cornwall. I started on a boat, then saw the different angles from the enforcement side, then non-governmental quango like Sea Fish, then a national scale with the Federation. Put all those things together hopefully puts me in some sort of position to do this job.

So what is your role at the CFPO?

It’s the job that entails everything I think. The CFPO is a members’ organisation, wholly funded by fishermen. We have something like 200 boats in membership, the bulk of which are Cornish boats working in Cornish ports, but we also have boats in South Wales, Devon, along the south coast and dotted around the country. We have two core functions, one of which is quota management for our vessels, which is interesting at times! And the other is representing our members, whether at a local level, sea fisheries committees and local regulators, or Westminster, or Brussels, we do all that. We’re a one-stop shop almost. The first place fishermen will come, is in here and say I’ve got this problem, or I want to ask this question. And if we can’t deal with it directly, we’ll find someone who can.

The quota system seems to be very bureaucratic.

PT: It’s not straightforward, that’s for sure! At a European level, there are the stock assessments and that advice goes to the European Commission, which gives a TAC, total allowable catch, for each stock. That is then given to member states, the UK, France etc, and the percentages are fixed. It’s called relative stability, and so we get X% of total allowable catch. As this figure goes up and down, so the UK share goes up and down. Once that is in the UK, it then gets distributed to boats basically. So the quota is associated to boats’ licences. Boats in membership of this organisation, we put it all into a pool, and then we manage it on a monthly basis.

Is there an issue of quota being sold out of county?

That certainly has been a problem and will continue to be one. The ways we’ve tackled it is that this organisation has actually bought quota. We started that six or seven years ago, to help young fishermen get into the bigger boats. It almost became that they could afford the boats and the licence, but they couldn’t afford the quota to go with it. So we purchase the quota, and lease it back to them as a start, and they can buy themselves out of the lease arrangement over time. To date, the CFPO has purchased something like a £1 million of quota over the last seven years or so.

We also have the Duchy Fish Quota Company, which is a not for profit organisation. It’s all about keeping quota in Cornwall, and in theory keeping the boats in Cornwall going to sea, keeping the markets going etc. Because the Duchy Fish Quota Company is not for profit, and because we’re attempting to use grant monies and Government support, it’s been smaller scale than we originally anticipated, but we’ve still done something like £200k of quota through them. And as they lease quota, they get money which can be used to buy the next bit.

I assume quota must come in different sizes?

Quotas are based on historic track records. Fixed quota allocation units are associated with licences. A quota unit, when it was originally done, was worth a 100 kilos, so bigger boats had more units. But as quotas go up and down at European level, that quota may only be worth 70 kilos, or 110. So historically bigger boats had more, or boats that fished more, had more. More recently though, as there’s been a trade in units, there’s been a rationalisation. Quotas have tended to go to where people need them or use the most.

So there are individuals who have bought more quota, ourselves as the PO (producer organisation), the Duchy Quota Company etc, but prior to the PO and the quota company being set up, there was a loss of quota, because people outside of Cornwall, Anglo Spanish interests who had a lot of money for example, were buying it up. People were, inevitably I suppose, selling to the highest bidder. So that is why we started a policy of buying quota to try and prevent that. Because once quota goes…that’s the lifeblood. Boats won’t be able to go to sea.

And keeping within your quotas must be quite a challenge in itself. There’s quite a penalty for exceeding them right? There was a local case recently for instance.

The case here in Newlyn you’re talking about was related to offences in 2002 and at that time, I think it’s fair to say, the quotas themselves were out of line with what was actually in the sea. And for years before that, there has been this long running argument with fishermen saying the sea is full.

But quotas are there for a reason, aren’t they, for sustainability?

Yes. The idea for them is there is an amount of fish that can be taken from any stock in any year, which should allow the stock not to be fished out. The problem we had, though, going back pre 2002, was fishermen saying there’s loads of fish in the sea, and scientists saying there was none. And they both couldn’t be right.

So we said this isn’t getting us anywhere. We took scientists on board our boats on commercial trips and said we’d like to improve your perspective on the stocks and hopefully have a look at the assessment. And it actually worked out very well on a number of levels.

The reassessment on the first stock we picked, monkfish, the quota went up, the stock was in far better shape than they thought. But the added benefit was that the skippers and crews involved had an understanding of how assessments went. Not just scientists numbers, quota, they understood this is why, even if we’re catching fish here, it doesn’t necessarily show up on the assessment and vice versa.

And the scientists from their persepective were saying we are now starting to see some of the fisheries characteristics and how we’re not picking stuff up in assessments. The exchange of information helped both sides. And since then we’ve had annual surveys on monkfish, sole, trips on cod and hake and other important species, so there’s been a big improvement on what the assessment says in relation to fish in the sea.

That’s not to say, though, we still don’t have problems. In some stocks we’re still seeing a lot more fish in the sea than is being suggested by the assessment or the quota level. And that’s where we have difficulties, where quota is tight but there are a lot of fish on the ground.

How often are quotas changed?

They’re reviewed every year. Every December fisheries ministers from across Europe meet and receive this annual advice and set the level. Cod and sole are probably the ones at the moment with the most divergence and we continue to work with the scientists. But once the new year begins, we endeavour, within the UK, swap additional quote in if possible.

Then outside of the UK, with France, Belgium, Ireland, places like that, if they have quota in excess of what they’re catching, we’ll try and do a swap. But it’s not always possible, and it obvisouly costs something, maybe not money, but we’ll have to swap another quota with them. That’s the only way we can affect our start position if you like, and we do a lot of that throughout the year. Because fishing being what fishing is, it is unpredictable. Some years it will be five or six species we struggle with, some years it will only be one or two. We just have to adapt and try and do the deals we can.

Cod problems I assume are the most high profile?

Yes, and we do have problems with cod every year. Again, this organisation proposed in about 2002 a closed area to protect cod, off Trevose – a 3,500 sq mile area in the spawning season from Feb 1 to March 31. That was an attempt to do something to protect cod, allow it to spawn, the theory being that it would reduce fishing mortality in cod, which would see an improvement in the quota for us to catch the rest of the year. We haven’t really seen the improvements in quota, but anecdotally, we are seeing a lot more cod throughout the year and across a wider area.

But which you can’t catch?

We’ve actually changed the way the fleet operates. We don’t actually now target cod. There’s not a boat with this organisation that catches more than 15% cod over the course of a year and most boats are under 5%. But that still creates problems, because the quota is so small now, we’re waiting for the assessment to catch up with reality.

Boats obviously sometimes catch species they’re not looking to catch. Do you sometimes have to throw fish back because it might exceed quota?

Within this organisation we do have a certain amount of flexibility through the swapping and leasing mechanism. We have monthly limits for all our boats, and sometimes they do go over those limits, but this is internally, so we can say you’re over this month, go under next month, or lease in additional quota to cover. As long as we, as an organisation, are within our ceiling at the end of the year, that’s fine, going over, as a PO, that’s a problem. That can result in people being fined, fisheries get closed, things like that.

But some fish does get thrown back?

Cod is the example still here. It is probably the only commercial species we have problems discarding simply because there is not enough quota. And when boats catch in excess of quota, it has to go back over the side.

But that’s crazy! These fish are now dead!

It is mind bending to think that this is supposed to be a conservation measure.

Surely it should be allowed to do something with that fish, even if you don’t profit from it.

It’s a problem we’ve been wrestling with for some time now. The fish industry has taken measures, like the Trevose closure, science partnerships, to try and avoid that, but at the end of the day there is a legal requirement, and once you reach quota limit at a PO level or national level, that’s it, it has to go over the side. And cod, realistically, is not a target species for our boats, it is a by-catch only and that makes it more difficult. At times it can be an economicly important part of the catch, not something people can afford to throw away. Our heads do get scratched on this!

Aside from quota, what are the other issues and challenges the industry faces right now?

Quota is lifeblood. Other issues I guess are over regulation. Regulation in a national and European sense seems to be increasing exponentially in what is already a very regulated industry, and more doesn’t help. And a lot of it is contradictory stuff. There’s regulations on spurdogs and porbeagles, you’re only allowed to catch a certain percentage, it’s the same as quotas really, you end up chucking them back dead. We don’t target them, but do catch them. Absolute madness.

Fuel last year. In the summer, at its peak, boats were paying 70p a litre. It was taking well over half the value of the fish caught, boats were tied up, just couldn’t afford to go out. Fortunately the price came down. We’ve been looking at ways of minimising fuel consumption and maximising return per litre, and all that sort of stuff. And although the price has come down, we’ll continue to do that, because long term prices won’t stay down. And that follows on to the market side of things. We’ve got to ensure the price per kilo of fish is the very best it can be. It’s no good catching fish and letting it go cheaply.

How is price determined? Simple supply and demand?

Yes, we have an auction market here, although we do have some problems with it. It’s a traditional auction, where the buyers stand around and the auctioneer sells it. At Plymouth they have an electronic auction, which appears to be a more transparent system. You know you’re getting the best price on the day. There are boats that come into Newlyn and truck their fish to Plymouth.

Aren’t there plans to have a new market here?

There are, but they’re not exactly the most transparent plans to understand. Because the harbour is run by the Commissioners, they’ve developed the proposals, and the question we, as an organisation, have been asking, fine, there’s grant money available and all the rest, but what will be price be of landing fish onto Newlyn market, because there’s obviously a percentage paid to the harbour and the auctioneers. And they’ve been unable to answer that question. So at the moment, we as an industry, are unwilling to say – yes, carry on. Because it would be like signing a blank cheque. We just don’t know what the cost would be.

But we would like to see an improvement in the market facilities, and we’ll continue to push for that. But unfortunately in Newlyn, and I guess it’s probably true of many ports in the country, there are a lot of local politics which does not help the process. I’m sure if you could strip away some of the local politics we could get the improvements required at a reasonable cost to the boats.

How is Newlyn’s standing in the industry?

Going back ten years Newlyn was, in terms of value, the #1 port outside of Scotland. In the last few years, it has been between Brixham and Newlyn. Both have been around, in terms of the fish coming in, £19 million first sale value. So yes, we’re still a very important port.

How would you gauge the health of the industry here?

There’s no doubt it has gone through a period of decline, in number of boats and value and volume of fish landed. But that’s not just Newlyn, that’s across the whole of the UK. The decline has probably been less in the south west because it is such a diverse fishing fleet. The North Sea is reliant on cod, haddock, whiting, whereas we are far more mixed and diverse. But these are undoubtedly challenging times, the running costs are massive and getting people to go to sea as crew has been a problem for the last five or six years.

So there is a recruitment problem in the industry? Jobs exist?

Getting people to crew the boats and then hopefully progress through is difficult. I think there is a negative public perception. You don’t hear about fishing unless a boat has gone down, or quota has been slashed, or green issues. So that hasn’t helped. And I guess at one time, moneywise, fishing was a long way ahead of anything shore based, so therefore people would endure the conditions to get the reward.

It’s about maximising the return on the catch and improving quota opportunities for the boats, because crew get paid on a share of the gross. Cornish fish is recognised as being some of the best quality in Europe, people are crying out for it, so that side of it is positive.

So yes it is challenging at the moment, but I think there is reason to be optimistic.

Not quite as doom and gloom as you read and hear in some quarters, which claim it’s going the way of the tin industry?

No, no, not at all. That is an inaccurate perception. Without doubt, the fishing industry will survive in Cornwall. It’s almost a generational thing. The guys that come in now recognise there has to be management, environmental responsibility. It’s not like it was when granddad went to sea, filled the boat up, came in and chucked it ashore. That’s gone.

But we’ve been at the forefront of improving science, which is key, and I think the industry here has to take a lot of credit in environmental improvements, whether it be the Trevose closure or beam trawlers, putting wheels on their beams, to prevent the impact on the bottom. And Cornish boats in some ways are starting to get some benefit back with buyers actively seeking Cornish fish, because not only is it top quality, but people are recognising the efforts of the industry in environmental responsibility.

So they’re all positives. The foundations are there for a modern fishing industry which in economically viable, but also sustainable long term both in terms of the fish we’re catching but the environment as well.

There are a still a lot of people employed in the industry, about a 1000 just in Newlyn. And what is unquantified is the contribution it makes indirectly. Tourism is the main industry, how many people would go to St Ives if the fishing harbour wasn’t there? The contribution fishing makes to Cornwall is far greater than just the people employed in it.

At consumer level, is demand good? Are people eating a lot of fish?

Seem to be. Go back five years, Newlyn was 89% predominantly export, Spain, France, now it’s more like 65-35 now. The domestic market has improved, which is great for us. Probably help in no small part to the likes of Rick Stein. And different species of fish. At the market here, there 45-50 different species.

I bet the man in the street could only name about five!

(laughs) That’s right. Stein’s has promoted gurnard, pollock, megrim sole hasn’t taken off so much in this country, but we’ve still landed 700-800 tons.

It’s all money in the sea.

It’s all down to diversity again, but we need a market that can handle that. Instead the housewife cooking cod, cod, cod, haddock, cod, we could do with cod, john dory, gurnard, turbot, just mix up the fish.

I guess people come down on holiday, taste the fish in the restaurant and like it.

And if they like it, when they get back home they should ask their local supermarket to stock it, and that would be a massive help, and supermarkets will do it.

For the household market, most fish ends up in supermarkets. You don’t get many fishmongers any more.

For a time when the fish monger disappeared off the high street, there was nothing to replace them, but now most big supermarkets now have fresh fish counters, which is obviously good.

It does annoy me though when you sometime go in a local supermarket and you see mackerel from the North Sea for instance.

Madness! Especially here, when there’s mackerel landed, hand line, year round! But we have been speaking to all the supermarkets, very much along those lines, about local sourcing, and it’s been going well.