DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove has released the Government’s White Paper on fishing, heralding it as a chance to take back control of our waters and rebuild coastal communities after the disastrous EU Common Fisheries Policy. There have been many concerns over the last few years that, ravaged by the CFP, the diminished status of UK fishing would leave it vulnerable to being traded away by British negotiators.
In the EU negotiating guidelines of March 2018 the EU called for an FTA to be dependent on “existing reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources”. In her Mansion House speech, Theresa May acknowledged that the EU wanted an unprecedented level of access to our fishing waters, but failed to challenge the demand. Instead she used it as a reason for the UK gaining an unprecedented level of EU market access. Therefore it’s a welcome relief to Brexiteers that the Government has published, in black and white, that becoming an independent coastal state would not be linked to a future trade agreement with the EU.
The UK will also apply to be an independent member of the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs), including the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) as a separate entity to the EU. The UK will take its place alongside Iceland and Norway in a welcome policy development which firmly marks out British independence.
However, despite legally taking back control, the UK seems happy for EU vessels to continue to enjoy considerable access to British waters:
“Given the heavy reliance on UK waters of the EU fishing industry (on average between 2012 and 2016 other EU Member States’ vessels landed in the region of 760,000 tonnes of fish (£540 million revenue), as well as the importance of EU waters to the UK (UK vessels landed approximately 90,000 tonnes of fish (£110 million revenue) in other Member States’ waters per year in the same time period), it is in both our interests to reach a deal that works for the UK and the EU’s fishing communities.”
The British fishing fleet has suffered a great deal under the CFP. Trawlers from the EU currently take around 750,000 tonnes of fish from UK waters each year, with a processed value of around £4 billion. This amounts to around 55% of the total catch of EU vessels. From 1995 to 2005 the number of British fishing boats fell from 8,073 to 6,716 and the number of fishermen fell by over a third.
Whilst the UK should not wish to see a cliff edge approach that was seen when the UK joined the CFP, the Government perhaps should have considered an annual reduction of EU vessels allowed in British waters over a period of years which would allow the UK fleet to rebuild and the EU fleet to sustainably decline. When the number of EU vessels in UK waters had diminished, the UK could then be able to enter into bilateral negotiations with the EU, allowing them access to species in UK waters that EU nations prized more highly than the British, and vice versa.
Despite Gove’s insistence that the EU has done so much damage to the UK fleet, the Government’s White Paper falls short of any radical plan to revive fishing back to the glory days before Ted Heath was Prime Minister. Leaving the CFP gives the UK a unique chance to set out big, bold plans of a new sustainable system that will last for decades. But, like the negotiations, the whole approach on fishing seems to have been bureaucratised and reduced to working from an existing failed policy.
However much the Government want to remain aligned to the CFP, it still doesn’t get over the huge task of amending UK law. The CFP takes its authority from the EU treaties which apply to member states only. If we maintained a shadow form of CFP after the transition, references to the European Commission, European Parliament and the Council of Ministers would still have to be removed and equivalent bodies would have to be created in the UK in order to shadow CFP regulations. When challenged on this, a DEFRA spokeswoman insisted that the EU Withdrawal Act was a sufficient to ensure the law worked, but why not start from scratch?
One of the biggest sources of frustration with the CFP is discards – fishermen throwing away vast amounts of premium fish because they lacked the quota set for their species. In rules which comes into force next year, the EU has sought to solve this problem by banning discards entirely. In 2019 fishermen will have three options if they inadvertently catch the wrong type of fish: land them legally and pay a fine, land them secretly and risk arrest or throw them back into the sea, which will soon be illegal. But the DEFRA proposals are not much better.
On landing fish over the quota limit, the White Paper says:
“Such fish could be subject to a charge related to the market value of the fish landed, with the landings covered by quota retained in the reserve for such purposes… Such an approach would maintain a powerful disincentive to targeting any fish species where quota is scarce since fish subject to a charge would have little or no value to the fishermen who landed them.”
This is no different to the fines that the EU will hand out from next year and does not eliminate the problem of discards or provide any incentive for fishermen to stop discarding fish. There are proposals to close areas at risk of overfishing and a plan to check whether a species can survive being thrown back in again to possibly allow discards; but except for the CCTV and tracking equipment that DEFRA is considering installing on boats, there’s no positive reason to comply.
In contrast, campaigners have long championed the idea of a ‘Days at Sea’ system to eliminate discards. This would see the quotas placed on fish to a time limit on fishing. Boats would able to keep everything they catch within a certain number of days at sea. The Government has decided to trial this idea but only to a very limited extent:
“We will consider a targeted scientific trial using an effort (days at sea) based regime in place of a quota regime for some low impact inshore fisheries.”
Undoubtedly the trial that has been proposed is very small to avoid antagonising the huge fishing trawlers which will try to block any change to the current system. It is unlikely that this trial will be replicated on a wider scale and this means a continuation of illegal discards for the foreseeable future.
So while the White Paper on fishing is better than many feared, it does leave the door open to EU fishing in British waters in perpetuity.