Conservative MPs have demanded ministers undertake a “complete rethink” on a controversial smartphone app that fishermen fear could cost their livelihoods.
Government backbenchers used the fisheries debate in Parliament to call for action after fishermen across England warned the new technology could lead to small-scale skippers tying up their boats for good.
Skippers of the country’s 2,114 under 10 metre vessels have been told to use the Catch Recording App by regulator Marine Management Organisation (MMO) to declare the weight of the fish they land.
The submissions have to be within a 10% margin of error or fishermen could face prosecution and an unlimited fine, even though the majority of trawlermen are having to guess the fish heft given on-board space constraints make it difficult to carry weighing scales.
Something that could benefit UK fishermen is being interpreted as a tool for prosecution
South East Cornwall MP Sheryll Murray called for a “complete rethink” and told ministers the “threat of criminal prosecution for estimating outside the 10% tolerance should be removed”.
The MMO has said it will not be heavy handed in prosecuting those “who are recording catches to the best of their ability,” but Ms Murray, whose fisherman husband died in an accident while at sea, said trawlermen needed stronger legal protection.
Requesting a meeting between industry officials and Fisheries Minister George Eustice, Ms Murray said: “Something that could benefit UK fishermen is being interpreted as a tool for prosecution.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which oversees the work of the MMO, has so far refused to remove the threat of court action for those found to have submitted incorrect landing weights.
A Defra spokeswoman said: “While those who do so to the best of their ability will not be unduly prosecuted, it is crucial we retain the power to take enforcement action where this is necessary to ensure long-term prosperity for this vital sector.”
Fellow Tory Anthony Mangnall, MP for Totnes in Devon – a constituency that includes Brixham, England’s largest fish market by catch value – said connectivity issues had made it “near impossible” for some fishermen to use the app, while Labour backbencher Mark Tami noted it had only a one-star rating on Google.
Ruth Jones, Labour’s fisheries spokeswoman, told those in the Westminster Hall debate she wanted to “see an end to unnecessary red tape” and cited the Catch App as an example.
Mr Eustice however – despite admitting the app was “not particularly popular” – said he supported its roll-out.
He said the app was a bid to improve data, which could potentially allow the inshore fleet to catch more fish when the UK is free from the European Union’s fishing rules after December 31.
“We think most fishermen can make reasonable estimates of their weight,” he added.
“We are working with them to ensure we can make this work in practice.”
The row follows uproar in the under 10m fishing community after guidance on the Government website accused small-scale skippers of being “rule beaters (who) consistently seek to evade regulation” – language that has further fuelled speculation that the Catch App could be used as a vehicle with which to target traditional fishermen.
The online text has since been edited after complaints were raised on social media, with calls for the MMO to apologise.
The document said the 500 most active under 10m vessels could be categorised using “two personas” – either “rule beaters” or “compliant”.
On those deemed to be dodging regulation, it said: “They choose to be under 10m vessel owners in order to avoid recording catch and will often chop off the front of their vessel to fit that vessel length.”
The Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation said the MMO should “apologise for these highly offensive remarks”, while ex-Brexit Party MEP June Mummery said fishermen were “up in arms” at the accusation.
A Defra spokeswoman said: “This report does not reflect the views of Defra or the Marine Management Organisation (MMO).
“We understand fishermen’s concerns, and our priority will always be to work closely with the industry and provide them with expert support and guidance to help them fish profitably and sustainably.”