Fisheries post-Brexit: dream or nightmare?

Date posted: 3 April 2018

Will fishers and conservationists ever see eye to eye during the Brexit process, and will broad agreement still be one man’s dream and another man’s nightmare? Mike Park, CEO of Scottish White Fish Producers Association voices his opinion from the fishers’ point of view. Samuel Stone, Head of Fisheries and Aquaculture at the Marine Conservation Society, delivers the views of the conservationists.

Orca feast

Conservationists’ nightmares - Samuel Stone

For years the fishing industry has complained about the EU: for the unfair proportion of the fishing quota, the inflexible rules and for the slow pace at which institutions move. But has it been all bad?

The UK has the second largest coastline in the EU (behind Greece) and also one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones (the sea zone on which we have special rights), so it is right to expect us to have the lion’s share of the EU fisheries resources. And we do – with the second largest share of EU quota behind Spain.

It does appear that the UK should have a bigger slice of the fish pie and Brexit may provide just the opportunity to get it, but one of the key differences between the UK and our coastal state peers, such as Iceland and Norway, is the fact that the UK has many more neighbouring countries (mainly members of the EU, that also happen to be our biggest clients) and therefore shares more waters and resources. The UK shares about 100 fish stocks with our neighbours and whilst we can control access to our waters, we can’t control where the fish swim. With the UK claiming its waters out to 200 nautical miles, the EU is no doubt nervous about many of its fisheries post Brexit. EU countries catch 585 million euros worth of fish from UK waters, whereas we only catch 127 million euros worth from EU waters.

This should stand us in good stead for negotiations on fisheries resources, but it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion that the EU will relinquish parts of its share of catches that are currently caught in what will be the UK EEZ. There is no binding resolution for the EU to catch less simply because we want to catch more.

Since the UK joined the EEC 40 years ago, commercial fishing has clearly not always been at the top of political priorities, but the perception of fisheries and the wider marine environment that they depend upon has changed. Fishing and humans are recognised as part of the whole marine environment and it’s understood now that this cannot be only valued in terms of GDP. Commercial fisheries exploit a wild, public resource, produce food for millions and support livelihoods of thousands. Fishing is also inextricably linked to, and impacts upon, an environment that is critical for an array of services that we depend upon every day and take for granted, such as the air we breathe, our climate, nutrient and energy cycling, and the enjoyment many of us receive from interacting with the sea in some way, shape or form. The traditional overexploitation of our fisheries resources and our general treatment of the seas has jeopardised all of this, and society has learnt the hard way that fisheries need to be carefully and well managed.

Whilst the EU machine is big and slow to react and has not been without its controversies, what it has done well in recent years is place the marine environment high on its list of priorities. Over the last decade, EU policies have actually enabled unprecedented progress in improving the sustainability of our fisheries. For example, we’ve gone from a position 15 years ago where virtually all main fish stocks were subject to overfishing, to now, where about 40% of assessed stocks (and declining) are subject to overfishing. As we now embark upon our exit from the EU, it is imperative that this progress be maintained.

In theory the industry and conservationists broadly agree on this point: hand in hand we must make our fisheries more sustainable after Brexit. However… with UK fishermen wanting to catch more, and the EU unwilling to catch less, none should be surprised by our deepest fear: that fishermen’s dreams could quickly become conservationists’ nightmares.

Fishermen’s dreams - Mike Park

Scottish fishermen have long dreamt of the day they could begin to lay claim to a larger share of the fish stocks from around our shores. The fact that Norwegian fishermen catch 84% of their own stocks and Iceland 90% hasn’t escaped our attention. The UK gets access to around 42% of the stocks within our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

UK fishermen had come to accept that change, if possible, would be the result of a slow agonising process. In the ‘International order’ of EU fisheries it was unlikely that any member state would relinquish fishing opportunities to another, even with the rather obvious impacts of regime shift and changing patterns of fish stocks. A useful example is the emerging abundance of previously unseen hake in the North Sea. Scottish vessels have very little quota for hake and spend an inordinate amount of time trying to avoid large aggregations where one fourhour tow can capture up to 40 or 50 tons, around 10% of the UK quota. It shows why ‘relative stability’, a permanent state of shares based on a snapshot in history, is an outdated yet permanent fixture of how we currently manage EU fisheries.

Brexit delivers the opportunity to energise the process of change and take us closer to the Norway and Iceland position. As a coastal state with control over who gets access to our waters we will be able to negotiate new catch shares based on the zonal attachment of stocks of fish, not on what we caught relative to others in the 1970s. We will argue for an intelligent, adaptive regime capable of responding to a continuously changing ecosystem. As a coastal state the UK will command a very strong negotiating position, due to the fact that the EU, Norway and Faroes all require significant access to our waters. The early post Brexit years will see a series of annual exchanges where access to the UK zone is openly traded for additional opportunities. These annual trades will exist for a number of years until such time as a new ‘end state’ is agreed with new fixed levels of shares. This new dynamic will prevail until such time as nature says we need to amend it. Whether we reach similar percentages to Norway and Iceland remains to be seen, however, what we have come to understand is that our current slice of the cake isn’t large enough.

Talk of an implementation period where the UK will have to abide by the Acquis (the body of EU law) for a twenty-one-month period, whilst having no say at the table, fills UK fishermen with dismay and trepidation. Not only would it mean a thirty-three-month transition for fisheries, given that agreement reached at the end of 2020 is binding for the whole of 2021, it would put us in harm’s way for a range of other, obvious reasons. Those of us who have extensive exposure to, and knowledge of, the annual fisheries negotiations, especially the political horse-trading that goes on, have little faith in any commitment by the EU to protect our interests.

Fishermen remember quite vividly the betrayal of Edward Heath as we entered what was then the EEC. A double dip betrayal as we exit would be further recognition that although many view coastal communities as an essential component of our island nation’s fabric, the importance of other sectors, and the willingness to use us as pawn in what is a big, complex negotiation, dictates that we will always be of minor consideration. There is still a real threat and fear that the UK could agree continued access and quota shares for EU vessels for the next decade; this would give away five billion pounds of opportunity at first sale.

Fishermen remain confident and buoyant but understand that the real enemy is the process where nothing is agreed until it’s all agreed.

This article was originally published in our Spring 2018 membership magazine ‘Marine Conservation’. If you’d like to receive our fantastic quarterly magazine straight to your door, you can become a member for as little as £3.50 per month.

Actions you can take

  1. Write to your MP to 'Save the laws' [campaign is now closed]
  2. Join MCS for as little as £3.50 per month
  3. Read more about Brexit and our seas