Project description

The distribution of fishing rights in the UK is vastly unequal. Small-scale fishing vessels comprise more than three quarters of the fleet and provide around half the jobs in fishing, but have access to less than 2% of the UK’s fishing quota. Fishermen in many traditional fishing communities have had to give up, switch to “non-quota” species like shellfish, or rent quota at exorbitant prices just to keep going.

Meanwhile a handful of large industrial fishing companies have amassed so much quota they can make millions just leasing it to others.

Within the UK, the decline of coastal communities is widely blamed on the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy, and the fishing industry was a prominent supporter of Brexit in the referendum campaign. The vote to leave has thrown fishing into the media spotlight, and opened the prospect of the biggest reforms of UK fishing policy since the CFP was introduced. But there is little understanding of how the UK’s own policies – which allowed first the commodification, then consolidation, of fishing rights – have affected fishing communities; and many of those who benefit most from this system have faced little media scrutiny.

So, with Brexit looming, we decided to trace and document for the first time the beneficial ownership of all of the UK’s fishing quota. The purpose was to inform the public debate around Brexit, and also the parliamentary debate around how UK fishing rights should be distributed post-Brexit.

This investigation took me nearly five months of combing Companies House records and vessel tracking databases to document the real owners of more than 14,000 allocations on the Marine Management Organisation’s quota register.

The investigation revealed that:

• Just five families on the Sunday Times Rich List control 29% of the United Kingdom’s fishing quota;
• Two-thirds of the UK’s entire fishing quota is held or controlled by just 25 businesses;
• More than half (13) of those businesses have shareholders, directors, or partners who were convicted of illegal landings in Scotland’s infamous “black fish” scandal (this was a huge, sophisticated fraud that saw trawlermen and fish factories working together to evade quota limits and land 170,000 tonnes of undeclared herring and mackerel);
• Nearly 80% of England’s quota is held either by foreign owners based in the Netherlands, Spain, or Iceland, or by domestic Rich List families;
• More than half of Northern Ireland’s quota is hoarded onto a single trawler. The owners of that vessel have earned millions in a single year just leasing out quota.

What makes this project innovative?

The project is ground-breaking largely in terms of its scale and ambition: there have been previous investigations into UK fishing rights, but no journalist has previously managed to map the ownership of the entire UK quota. Specifically, this was the first investigation ever to trace the beneficial ownership of fishing rights in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which between them have around 75% of the UK’s total fishing quota.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

The investigation was the most-read story on Unearthed’s website for the past year (with an unusually high average time on page of 6.5mins), and is one of the most heavily shared stories we have ever produced. The link to our story has been shared more than 13,000 times on Twitter and almost 20,000 times on Facebook. These figures significantly understate social media engagement with the story, as they do not include stats from various large Facebook groups that independently uploaded our video on the investigation – for example a Scientists for EU Facebook post of the video got 2,600 shares and 281 comments. The investigation was press released and picked up across UK and Scottish media, including a splash story in The Herald, and coverage from papers and broadcasters including the Financial Times, the Times, Press Association, the Daily Record, the Scotsman, STV, BBC Radio Scotland, and France 24. Perhaps most importantly, our findings have since been heavily cited in the House of Commons, and are at the heart of a parliamentary push for quota redistribution. For example, they were referenced by shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman at the second reading of the fisheries bill intended to replace the CFP post-Brexit. “[More] than a quarter of the UK’s fishing quota is owned or controlled by just five families on the Rich List of the Sunday Times,” she told MPs. “We are well-accustomed to hearing about taking our fair share of quota at the European level, but many in our coastal towns and smaller fleet want to know when they will get their fair share of the existing national quota.” Following this, both Conservative and Labour MPs tabled amendments to the bill that would give ministers the power and duty to redistribute quota according to socioeconomic and environmental criteria – and both cited the findings of our investigation as justification for their proposals. The campaign to have the bill amended in this way is still ongoing.

Source and methodology

Our most important source was the UK’s public register of fishing quota holdings, the FQA Register ( We began by obtaining a download of the entire FQA register (in total around 14,300 records). I uploaded this into Excel and used pivots to create tables of every company, licence, or individual listed as a quota holder in any country within the UK. We then worked systematically through these lists, using official public records (primarily records from Companies House and scraped Companies House data obtained from to identify the ultimate parent company and beneficial owners. I filed the relevant digital records for each parent company identified (annual returns, statements of significant control, etc) and created new fields in my tables for ultimate parents and significant minority investors. I then used vlookup formulae to import the new data I had gathered back into a copy of the complete database, allowing me to analyse the entire FQA register by ultimate parent companies/beneficial owners. Once I had identified the most significant owners in this way, I used a range of open source intelligence gathering techniques, financial journalism, and traditional reporting to profile them and their businesses.

Technologies Used

The data was managed and analysed using Excel and Google Sheets. The video was edited using Premiere Pro.

Project members

Data journalism and reporting: Crispin Dowler Video: Georgie Johnson Additional research: Jack Alexander



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