What does Brexit mean for the fishing industry?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 21 March 2018 in Inside Politics

Eurosceptics and fishing groups have expressed anger at the UK Government's approach to Brexit, but what will leaving the CFP mean for the industry?

Image credit: PA

“We are unusual, and possibly unique, in embracing Brexit with open arms,” explains Bertie Armstrong. “Whatever people think of other aspects of it, fishing was very wrong indeed under the Common Fisheries Policy.”

With Brexit negotiations well underway, amid growing concern over the effect of leaving the EU on the education sector, environment, agriculture, the NHS and business more widely, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation chief executive is probably right in identifying the fishing industry as one of the few areas which had looked to a post-EU future with optimism.

In some ways fishing seemed to symbolise Brexit. In no other area did the idea of ‘taking back control’ assume such a literal meaning.

Early signs had suggested the UK Government intended to play hard ball on fishing access, leaving the CFP in March 2019 and returning the UK to acting as an independent coastal state. As Michael Gove put it just last month: “The Prime Minister is crystal clear; the moment we leave, we become an independent coastal state. I and my colleagues are clear; we will have continuing good relations with our European partners, but we will decide access and quotas.”

Cabinet colleagues made similar noises, with Amber Rudd telling Andrew Marr: “In my constituency in Hastings, we hate the Common Fisheries Policy.”

And so, given the utterances of UK ministers, more recent suggestions that the UK will maintain its membership of the CFP until 2020 have enraged the fishing industry – even sparking plans for a Thames-based protest in response to the UK’s approach.

Put simply, fishing groups want out as soon as possible. Joining the CFP meant giving EU countries access to British waters, so while other coastal states, such as Iceland and Norway, enjoyed exclusive access to the resources within 200 nautical miles of their coastline – or at the median line if other states are close by – the UK was forced to share. That means Iceland keeps around 90 per cent of the fish zonally attached to its exclusive economic zone. Norway keeps 84 per cent. The UK, meanwhile, keeps around 40 per cent.

Armstrong said: “On the arrival of Brexit, our exclusive economic zone will become a reality for fishing, and we will have sovereignty over the resources in there, so that’s why the fishing industry is calling this a sea of opportunity. If we move towards the position that every other coastal state finds itself in, which is taking first call on the resource that exists in its area – harvesting what grows in your farm, if you like – then Brexit is a very, very good thing.”

Yet, despite the mood music, definitive answers on the future are hard to come by.

Armstrong said: “We must not cede sovereignty or tell the EU it can go on making decisions for us. Why on earth would you do that with your own natural capital? That is not the same as refusing to allow a degree of access in an interim period, while we move from the compromised position from inside the CFP to the day we can harvest what grows in our own farm. The central point is that we must retain sovereignty – that means you can be kind or unkind in negotiations, with regard to quotas, on an annual basis. That’s the way it works when coastal states negotiate with each other. They don’t promise you fish ad infinitum – that doesn’t happen.”

He added: “The EU would like to mix markets – ‘unless you give us access to your waters then you won’t access our markets’ – to which the answer is, would you like the one word or the two-word response? There are plenty of examples in history where markets have been reset… We love the idea of being able to forge ahead with our much greater volume of a world-class product and finding new markets.

“If you’ve ever bought a carpet from Morocco, you won’t be surprised by the opening bid from Europe – they would say that, wouldn’t they? But the cards are all in our hand and they are very strong.

“Mr Barnier, President Tusk and Mr Verhofstadt have all made dark threats that there will be changes after Britain leaves the EU. Well, you bet there will be changes – those gentlemen always phrase it as a veiled threat, with the unspoken half of the sentence being that you won’t much like the changes. There are some changes that we have suggested that won’t necessarily be very palatable for Europe but that’s what international law says about the natural capital in our waters.”

But while the fishing industry is clearly excited about a future outside the CFP, environmental groups appear less convinced.

Alex Kinninmonth is RSPB Scotland’s head of marine policy. He told Holyrood: “If you look back to where we were ten years ago, the CFP had a pretty dismal reputation. I don’t think there was anyone – either environmentally or in the fishing industry – who supported it. It was widely seen as having failed.

“But everything came to a head around ten years ago, and that led to fundamental reforms, ending in 2013. So what we have now, the reformed CFP, is pretty good from our perspective, in that it set a trajectory to end the current practice of overfishing. So what you have in the CFP today is a commitment to end overfishing by 2020 at the latest, a commitment to end discarding by 2019, and perhaps most importantly, it placed fisheries management within a whole set of wider goals that are all aimed at improving the health of the overall eco-system. It was a real shift from fisheries being managed in a silo to bringing it within the overall goal of improving the health of the marine environment in general terms.

“It’s now thought that around 50 per cent of EU fish stocks are overfished; around ten years ago, it was thought that was around 90 per cent. Not only is the environment benefiting but across the EU the fishing industry has never been more profitable. Recovering stocks is good for fish, it’s good for the environment and it’s good for business as well.”

So if the CFP has brought environmental progress, is there a danger leaving it would mean taking steps back?

Kinninmonth is not convinced. “Looking to the future, no one is suggesting we abandon that direction of travel. If anything, we need to get our skates on and accelerate progress to meet those commitments. But if you take away the CFP, there’s no blank sheet of paper. We would go back to a whole host of international commitments which both the Scottish and UK Governments have supported – we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water, we will still have requirements on sustainability, and international law means we have to cooperate with our neighbours when managing shared stocks.”

Meanwhile, predictions are made more complicated by the ongoing wrangling between the Scottish and UK governments over effect of Brexit, amid concerns that the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, translating European legislation into UK law, amounts to a Whitehall “power grab” on devolution.

Nick Underdown, campaign manager at Open Seas, a group campaigning for sustainable seafood, sees the question of how Brexit will affect devolution as critical.

He said: “Whatever happens, in the event of Brexit there is going to be a UK fisheries bill that starts to set out how fisheries are managed. It’s essential that any repeal or transition legislation respects the spirit and relative weight of Scotland’s executively devolved role in fisheries policy and management.

“Brexit threatens to create winners and losers within the fishing industry and there is a major risk that small-scale fishermen will be disproportionately affected, whilst quota-owners are able to cash in. Brexit will fundamentally change the way we manage our waters. It’s important we keep a hold of the policies that are essential for sustainable fisheries and healthy seas - such as maximum sustainable yields, and eliminating discards - whilst also innovating, for example by delivering sea-to-plate traceability, more selective ways to fish and management that minimises the footprint of damaging fisheries.”

For Armstrong though, the balance of powers should be mixed. “There are elements of fishing policy where it would be common sense to have a similar approach – for example you wouldn’t want to have to change your gear if you wanted to fish for prawns off South Shields, rather than the Flodden Grounds. But on the other hand there are areas that it would be entirely appropriate for Scotland to deal with. Where there must be proper UK co-ordination is in acting as a coastal state, in order to use the heft of our exclusive economic zone.” 

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