This article looks at Brexit and its impact on the control and management of the UK’s fisheries. This is an ongoing story with new details and developments emerging on an almost daily basis. The information below is will be updated as soon as possible, but some details may be out of date due to the fast-moving nature of the topics being discussed.
The 2015 Conservative Party manifesto promised a referendum on EU membership. With the Conservatives winning a majority in the House of Commons in that election it was decided that the referendum would take place on the 23rd June 2016. It had been widely expected that the vote would go in favour of remaining a member of the EU, but in the end the UK voted to leave the EU. This sparked a period of political turmoil which saw David Cameron resign as Prime Minister and another general election follow less than two years later.
Britain leaving the EU – a process which soon became known Brexit (a portmanteau of the words British and Exit) – will lead to major changes in trade, immigration, jobs, laws and regulations, justice, and legislation across a huge number of sectors of British society which are intertwined with the EU. However, it is also set to have a significant impact on the way the fish stocks within Britain’s territorial waters are controlled, managed an exploited.
The Common Fisheries Policy and Britain’s Membership of the EEC/EU
Britain, as a member of the European Union, is signed up to the Common Fisheries Policy. This is an agreement whereby EU nations do not control their own territorial waters or set their own quotas to catch fish. Instead, fish are classed as a common resource and the rules governing fishing quotas, catch levels, subsidies, discards and a whole range of other measures is set centrally by the European Commission (the branch of the European Union which proposes legislation and carries out the day-to-day business of the EU). Although the individual member states of the EU are still responsible for policing their waters and enforcing the legislation, rules and regulations, all European countries with a coastline and a fishing industry share their territorial waters (which are called the Exclusive Economic Zone) with each other, and all have the right to fish in each other’s waters, with the EU setting the catch levels for each country in each specific area.
Before joining the EEC (European Economic Community) in 1973 (which became the European Union in the early 1990s) Britain – like most other countries in the world – controlled its own fishing waters. This was a zone extending 200 nautical miles from a country’s coastline (or the median point if another country is closer than that distance), an area known as a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. With EEC membership Britain would control a zone just 12 miles from the UK coastline, with the rest of Britain’s waters now part of Europe’s combined Exclusive Economic Zone and controlled by the EEC.
British Prime Minister Edward Heath had negotiated Britain’s bid to join the EEC and many in the fishing industry had believed that some special deal would be cut to allow Britain to maintain some control over its Exclusive Economic Zone. This did not happen, despite ministers claiming that it would, leaving many fishermen feeling hugely resentful that they then had to share the fish stocks in their territorial waters with the fishing industries of many other EU countries, for no apparent benefit to themselves.
A separate piece of legislation known as the London Fisheries Convention (so called as it was signed in London) was ratified in 1964. This gave the countries which signed it, including the UK, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Netherlands, Portugal and several others the right to fish in the zone between six and twelve miles from each other’s coastlines. Many of the regulations of the London Fisheries Convention were superseded by the Common Fisheries Policy, although the convention is still in effect.
This system has been in place ever since. Supporters of EU membership point out that British fishermen can fish elsewhere in EU waters, but the reality is that Britain has – or at least should have – some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe meaning there is huge demand for EU vessels to access Britain’s territorial waters, but limited value in British fishermen catching fish elsewhere in the EU. The statistics bear this out. In 2015, EU vessels caught 683,000 tonnes (raising £484 in million revenue) in UK waters, but UK vessels caught only 111,000 tonnes (£114 million revenue) in EU Member States’ waters.
The way quotas are set centrally by the EU is also seen as hugely unfair on British fishermen, as they can often end up getting only a tiny proportion of the catch within their own waters, as the following statistics show:
- 40% of Denmark’s entire fishing take comes from Britain’s territorial waters.
- In the Celtic Sea, France gets nearly three times the British allocation of Dover sole, roughly four times more cod and five times more haddock. France has 84% of the quota for cod in the English Channel, while Britain has only 9%.
- A single Dutch trawler the Cornelis Vrolijk, had the right to catch 23% of England’s entire fishing quota. In comparison the entire small inshore fishing fleet for the whole England is given 4% of the quota.
- European fishermen take 173 times more herring, 45 times more whiting, 16 times more mackerel and 14 times more haddock and cod out of UK waters than British fishermen do.
There are many other criticism of the Common Fisheries Policy including high levels of discarded fish being allowed, dubious deals to allow European factory trawlers to fish in the waters of impoverished African nations and huge subsidies paid out to allow highly environmentally damaging deep-sea trawling to continue even though it only employs a tiny number of people, runs at a huge financial loss and is only propped up by EU subsidies. These are all covered in our main article on the Common Fisheries Policy which can be viewed by clicking here.
Fishing in the EU Referendum Campaign
Commercial fishing is, in fact, a very, very small part of the UK economy. Out of a workforce of 28.1 million people commercial fishing directly employs around 12,000 people, meaning the sector accounts for 0.0044% of employed people in the UK [Source: Marine Socio-Economics Project, New Economics Foundation, May 2014], although like all industries there are further people employed in the wider supply and support sectors. Indeed, the World of Business programme broadcast on the BBC World Service in August 2017 stated that the British commercial fishing industry raises less money for the UK economy than the manufacturing and selling of lawnmowers.
Despite this, commercial fishing is often seen as massively important to coastal communities around the UK, even if economically it has been overtaken by other industries. The way the UK no longer controls its own territorial waters can be seen as exemplifying the way in which EU membership has led to Britain losing control over an industry which once provided plentiful jobs and employment, and one in which foreign fishing fleets are often seen as benefiting at Britain’s expense. For these reasons, fishing has a significance and media profile which is much higher than its economic importance would suggest.
Fishing had a high-profile role in the build up to the referendum with the overwhelming majority of the UK’s commercial fishing industry favouring leaving the EU in order to also leave the Common Fisheries Policy and put the control of Britain’s fishing ground back in the hands of the UK. A number of fishing pressure groups emerged to back Brexit, such as Fishing for Leave. Prominent leave campaigners such as Boris Johnson criticised the Common Fisheries Policy, calling it “crazy”, leading to the Prime Minister David Cameron defending the policy and claiming that the value of the UK’s fish catching and processing industry had “gone up” during his time in power. The issue of fishing was also thrust into the public consciousness days before the referendum when a pro-leave flotilla of fishing boats, organised by Fishing for Leave and supported by UKIP leader Nigel Farage (who was on board) travelled along the Thames and past parliament to campaign for Brexit and the return of Britain’s fishing grounds. This was met by a rival flotilla of remain supporters led by multi-millionaire singer Bob Geldof. The remain supporters played the song The In Crowd by Dobie Gray, while some of the boats from the pro-leave flotilla used their hoses to soak the remain boats. Eventually the police arrived to keep the two groups apart, although there were no reports of serious trouble.
The EU Referendum Result
The referendum result was confirmed in the early hours of 17th June 2016 with 51.9% voting to leave and 48.1% remain, meaning that Britain would begin the process of leaving the European Union. While many areas such as London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain, Wales and much of England outside of London and major metropolitan areas voted to leave. Areas which traditionally had a large fishing industry, such as Humberside had some of the highest proportion of leave votes in the country.
The result of the referendum led to the Prime Minister David Cameron, who had strongly backed remain, announcing his resignation within hours of the result being confirmed and a period of political turmoil began. While questions would be asked about how the leave vote would affect many aspects of Britain’s economy, laws, immigration system, international trade and so on, the issue of how fishing would be affected remained high up the agenda. Nigel Farage stated that the way the UK deals with its fisheries would be the “acid test” for the whole of Brexit, with many within the fishing industry fearing that the UK’s fisheries would again be used as a bargaining chip by the government with EU access to Britain’s waters traded away for a favourable deal on trade, exports, finance or access the EU markets.
Possible Scenarios: Hard and Soft Brexit and its Implications for Fisheries
Shortly after David Cameron resigned Theresa May became leader of the Conservative party and therefore Prime Minister. On 29th March 2017 she sent a letter to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, which triggered Article 50, the formal process of Britain leaving the EU. The process would take two years, meaning that Britain would remain a member of the European Union and continue to be signed up to all EU legislation and rules (including the Common Fisheries Policy) during this time, and possibly longer if there was a transitional period following Britain’s formal departure from the EU.
During this time the terms ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’ began to be used in the media. A hard Brexit can be understood as Britain leaving the European Union and with it the European Single Market, Customs Union and no longer having to accept the freedom of movement of people. A soft Brexit would mean Britain leaving the EU but staying a member of these institutions, possibly through being a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) – an agreement which allows non-EU countries to access the Single Market in return for accepting the majority of EU rules and regulations. As with many of the implications of Brexit it remains to be seen how a hard or soft Brexit would impact fisheries, but it is worth noting that being a member of the EEA (a development which many people would consider to be a very soft Brexit) does not mean that a country has to give up control of its fisheries. Norway and Iceland are both members of the EEA and EFTA (European Free Trade Association) meaning that they are signed up to many of the EU’s rules and regulations and in turn they can participate in the Single Market.
However, under the rules of their membership (and because they are not full members of the European Union) they still control their own territorial waters and the fishing which takes place there. This is not to say that EU vessels cannot access the waters of these countries but it is done under a licensing system which Norway and Iceland unltimately having final say about what happens in their own territorial waters. Indeed, Iceland and Norway are the only two European nations which have plentiful fish stocks, and both countries have cited losing control of their fisheries as a key reason for not pursuing full membership of the European Union. Indeed, Iceland’s fisheries minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson has said that he would “never join the European Union” saying that “we have one of the biggest and one of the strongest fisheries in the world that is sustainable without any subsidies from the state. We don’t have to share this decision-making with anyone else. It would be difficult for Icelanders to control their economic and fisheries sector having the obligation to discuss it with 27 or 28 other countries.”
The 2017 Election and Subsequent Events
Under the leadership of Theresa May the Conservative Party was set to lead Britain towards something resembling a hard Brexit which involved leaving the European Single Market and Customs Union. The UK government said that they were confident that mutually beneficial trade deal could be reached between the UK and the EU. However, many prominent cabinet members said that no deal being reached before the two year Article 50 time limit was up would be better than a bad deal for the UK.
In April 2017 Theresa May called a General Election for the 8th June with the aim of increasing her party’s slender majority in the House of Commons and therefore giving the government a stronger mandate to negotiate a Brexit deal with the EU and make it easier to get Brexit legislation through the House of Commons. Despite having a 21-point lead over Labour in opinion polls at the start of the campaign, and some media outlets predicting a 150-seat conservative majority a woeful campaign by Theresa May and the Conservative Party saw a resurgent Labour party close the gap on the Conservatives as the election approached. In the end the Conservative Party lost their majority in parliament, falling eight seats short of an overall majority, and had to form a confidence and supply agreement with the ten MPs of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party in order to stay in power.
Despite this election result the Conservative Party appear to be progressing with a hard Brexit (it should be noted that the left-wing Labour Party also had a manifesto commitment to leave the Single Market, a policy also associated with hard Brexit, although post-election they appear to have changed and are now saying that the back the UK staying in the Single Market for a non-defined transitional period after the UK leaves the EU). In the Queen’s Speech which follows the election sets out plans for the forthcoming parliament many of the Conservatives manifesto policies were dropped, but the party appeared to be proceeding with most of their plans for Brexit. In terms of fisheries the most pertinent news was that it was announced in the Fisheries Bill that the UK would proceed with plans to take back control of its own waters and set its own quotas for fisheries once the country had withdrawn from the European Union. This was welcomed by the commercial fishing community and strengthened when it was announced that the UK would also be withdrawing from the London Fisheries Convention, the legislation which allows foreign vessels to within the twelve-mile zone close to the UK shore which is still controlled by the British government. While there is still a very long way to go in the Brexit process these early steps appear to show that the government is progressing with its plans to regain control of Britain’s fishing grounds once the country leaves the European Union.
Left-leaning newspapers have ran a series of articles claiming that Britain will either be unable or unwilling to take back control of its own waters and fishing grounds. In February 2017, shortly before Article 50 was triggered, the Guardian reported that a leaked document from the European Parliament stated that there would be “no increase to the UK’s share of fishing opportunities” as the UK would need to respect the obligations of the CFP in order to have access to the EU’s domestic market to sell its catches. Similarly, when Environment Secretary Michael Gove made the perfectly reasonable and expected announcement that EU nations such as Denmark would be allowed some access to British waters post-Brexit this was portrayed by the pro-remain Guardian as contradicting the claim that Britain would regain control of its waters. In many ways the Guardian is correct in stating that EU vessels will continue to catch fish in UK waters after Brexit. However, they often fail to point out that this could be done under a licencing system (similar to the system Norway uses to allow some regulated and controlled foreign fishing in its waters) and that the UK will still be in control of who fishes in its waters and how much they catch. It is also true that under international law countries which control their own EEZ must allow neighbouring nations to catch fish stocks which straddle the EEZ – things which could be achieved while the UK still retains control of its own waters.
Scotland, Brexit and Fisheries
In Scotland (which has the majority of the UK’s fishing industry) the issue of Brexit and how it would impact fisheries had a significant impact on the 2017 general election results. The Scottish National Party (SNP) had held fifty-six of the fifty-nine parliamentary seats in Scotland, but saw this fall to thirty-five in the 2017 election, with big names such as former leader Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson, the leader of the SNP in the House of Commons, losing their seats. While Labour and the Liberal Democrats increased their number of seats it was the Scottish Conservatives who were the biggest beneficiaries, going from a single seat to thirteen. Much of the Conservative success in Scotland was put down to their popular leader Ruth Davidson and declining of support for another independence referendum which the SNP had pushed hard for.
However, fishing was seen as a very important issue as well. After the June 2016 EU referendum the Scottish fishing industry had come out in favour of leaving the EU and the CFP, with the chief executive of the Scottish Fisheries Federation saying the decision was a “no brainer.” With the SNP’s strong support for maintaining EU membership meaning that Scotland would remain in the Common Fisheries Policy the SNP lost the support of many fishermen and people from fishing communities, with many of the seats the Scottish Conservatives won coming in the north east of Scotland – the heartlands of Scotland’s fishing industry. Some SNP politicians in constituencies which have a large fishing community, such as Eilidh Whiteford in Banff and Buchan, even signed a pledge before the election agreeing that Scotland should leave the CFP, despite the fact that this ran counter to her party’s steadfast commitment to EU (and therefore CFP) membership. In the election signing the pledge did not appear to help, and she lost her seat to the Conservatives, despite previously having a majority of over 14,000.
The Scottish Conservatives, however, supported leaving the Common Fisheries Policy with leader Ruth Davidson signing the pledge to leave the CFP before the election. After the election she made it clear that fishing was one of her Brexit red line issues and that the entire UK must completely leave the CFP and establish a 200-mile fishing limit. She has also made it clear that she will not stand for access to UK (and therefore Scottish) fishing grounds be traded away for concessions in other areas. It was seen as significant that the Scotland Secretary David Mundell chose to visit a Peterhead fish market as his first public appearance after being reappointed. During the visit he reaffirmed the Conservatives commitment to leaving the CFP, referring to the policy as “disastrous.”
The issue of fisheries is clearly very important to Scotland as fishing makes up a much larger part of the economy there than it does in other parts of the UK. However, the fact that Theresa May and the Conservative party lost their overall majority in the election means that the thirteen Scottish Conservative MPs now have a significant amount of power, and the Conservatives good performance in Scotland effectively allowed the entire Conservative party to remain in government. This gives the Scottish Conservatives a large amount of influence on the issues they want to push ahead with, most notably leaving the CFP and regaining control of Scotland’s fisheries. The SNP have clearly suffered a backlash with their twin aims of independence for Scotland and maintaining EU membership, and have been reduced to weakly arguing that Scotland could benefit from a reformed CFP. In terms of fisheries their commitment to remain in the Common Fisheries Policy appears to have lost them large amounts of support in coastal communities where they were previously popular. An article in the Independent shortly after the election by Ted Brocklebank, a former Conservative MSP and Fisheries spokesman even suggested that the post-Brexit revival of Scotland’s fisheries could seriously hamper, or even end the “independence dream” for the SNP, as the idea of booming and abundant post-Brexit Scottish fisheries being dragged back into the hated Common Fisheries Policy would be so unpopular.
Reaction of Europe’s Fishing Industry
As previously discussed many EU countries are heavily reliant on their fisheries accessing UK waters and are alarmed at the prospect of losing the right to fish in Britain’s territorial waters. Denmark said that they would fight Britain’s attempts to take back control of its own waters, claiming that they had a historical right to fish in British waters which goes back to the 1400s, and also claim that the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (which Britain and Denmark are both signed up to) says that nearby countries must respect the “traditional fishing rights” of each other. Similarly, the Dutch fishing industry has also (according to the Express) “pleaded” with the UK to be allowed to access British waters after Brexit, as more than half of the Dutch fishing industries total catch comes from within UK waters. The small Belgian fishing industry will also have major problems if Britain regains control of its waters as three quarters of their boats and half of their catch comes from British waters. Some within the Belgian fishermen have even claimed that their fishing industry could collapse if they are denied access to UK water after Brexit.
Some sections of the European fishing industry are so dismayed at losing access to British fishing grounds that they have openly stated that they will ignore any attempts by the UK to take back control of its waters. Gerard van Balsfoort – the head of the European Fisheries Alliance which represents over 18,000 European fishermen – said in an interview with the BBC that his members would simply ignore any attempts by the UK to take back control of its own fishing grounds stating: “If our boats were suddenly barred from UK waters, we would just carry on fishing there regardless … We know that the Royal Navy is not able to patrol or control all your waters.”
The issue of Britain not being able to protect and defend its own waters post-Brexit is one which has come up repeatedly. Admiral Lord West, a former First Sea Lord and government minister has said that the UK could become a “laughing stock” if there were not enough Royal Navy vessels to protect British waters after leaving the EU and the CFP, and accused the government of “amazing complacency” in its plans for protecting Britain’s fisheries after Brexit. Much of Lord West’s criticism was valid. The Royal Navy has suffered severe cuts since 2010 and the four River-class patrol vessels which make up the Fisheries Protection Squadron are often tasked with other duties – one of them, HMS Clyde, is permanently based in the Falkland Islands and in 2015 HMS Severn was sent on an eight month deployment in the Caribbean, rather than protecting UK fisheries.
The Guardian has pointed out that measures such as these have resulted in the number of boats boarded by fisheries protection vessels falling from 1400 in 2011-12 to just 278 in 2016-17. Lord Gardiner, a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said in response to Lord West that Britain had a “robust enforcement system” for protecting its waters, pointing out that a new digital vessel monitoring system had been developed which allowed the UK to keep track of ships within its waters and five new River-class patrol boats were being built, although he did admit that fisheries protection would not be their only role. Other debates have led to more colourful ideas on how the UK can protect its expanded post-Brexit fishing waters. In November 2017 Conservative peer Lord Sterling of Plaistow said in a House of Lords debate on fisheries that MTBs (Motor Torpedo Boats) manned by marine reservists should be stationed at “stationed in every single little port within the country” to protect British fisheries. Although many within the fishing industry would agree with the ideas he put forward his choice of MTBs is puzzling as this type of vessel was most commonly used by the Royal Navy during the Second World War and the last class of MTBs was taken out of commission in the 1970s.
While it is easy to make the case that Britain will not be able to protect and patrol its own fishing grounds post-Brexit, Lord West an others claiming that this is an impossible task may be overstating their case. As stated Iceland has full control of its own 200-mile fishing grounds as it is not a member of the European Union. However, Iceland has a tiny navy (which is actually classed as a coast guard) consisting of just three offshore patrol vessels (only one of which is modern, the other two were built in the 1960s and 1970s respectively), a very small hydrographic research vessel and a number of much smaller RIHBs (Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat). In addition they have three helicopters and a single fixed wing aircraft. If Iceland is capable of protecting its entire 200-mile fishery with such limited naval resources then surely the UK – which still has one of the largest navies in the world – is capable of doing the same. Modern technology such a satellite tracking and other developments may also help to protect and monitor fisheries without having to send out vessels to patrol British waters.
In December 2017 it was announced that the Marine Management Organisation (which is part of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) had signed a multi-million pound contract to get its own squadron of patrol boats to protect Britain’s coastal waters. It is believed that these will be the Batch 2 River-class patrol vessels which are currently being built for the Royal Navy, although exactly how many will be based around the coastline of the UK for fisheries protection duties remains unclear.
Rather than fishing illegally in British waters many EU nations are arguing that if the UK wants to continue selling fish into the tariff-free Single Market then they should continue to be able to fish in British waters. This is an argument which the Danish fishing industry has repeatedly stated. Many on the pro-Brexit side of the argument have put forward the claim that British fishermen could simply sell their catch to nations outside of the EU, but it remains that case that some kind of mutually beneficial deal could be reached to allow EU nations some access to British waters post-Brexit under a highly regulated licencing deal in return for British access to sell into the European market.
UK Fisheries Post-Brexit
In late 2017 and agreement was reached for the UK to move onto the second phase of trade talks with the EU in 2018, prior to leaving the EU in March 2019. However, the UK looks likely to enter a two year transitional phase between 2019 and 2021 when, although the UK with not technically or legally be a member nation of the EU, the UK will still observe all of the rules and regulations of the EU, including those of the Single Market and Customs Union. This will receive huge support from UK businesses who will be able to trade with EU nations in the same way as they do now, but will also mean that the UK has to observe the “complete architecture” of EU rules on borders, trade freedom of movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
If this two year transition period includes remaining in the Common Fisheries Policy then the response from the UK’s fishing industry will be ferocious, and lead to fears that the UK will not actually leave the CFP. The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation has said that it believes that only a nine month transition period is necessary for the UK fishing industry to leave the CFP, and that its members would resist attempts to force them to comply with EU regulations beyond what it absolutely necessary after Britain leave the EU. UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge also said that failure to fully leave the CFP would be “the second time the Conservatives have betrayed our fishing fleets” after Edward Heath opened Britain’s waters to European nations following Britain joining the EEC in the 1970s. Splits within the government appear to be emerging over post-Brexit fishing, with Tom Newton-Dunn, the Sun’s political editor, writing that Brexit-supporting Environment Secretary Michael Gove and the pro-EU Chancellor Phillip Hammond had clashed over fishing rights, with Hammond keen to allow EU nations to continue to fish in UK waters in return for concessions on trade. Gove is completely opposed to this with the Sun quoting a cabinet source who says that he believes giving away fishing rights to UK waters would be a betrayal of the people in coastal communities who voted for Brexit. Michael Gove has good reason to want the UK to control its own fishing waters. His father was a fish merchant in Aberdeen and Gove blames EU regulations and the Common Fisheries Policy for putting him out of business.
In December 2017 Theresa May said that Britain would be “outside” of Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy (as well as the Common Agricultural Policy) from the day of Brexit in March 2019. May went on to say that “leaving the CFP and leaving the CAP give us the opportunity to actually introduce arrangements that work for the United Kingdom.” This caused surprise in both the UK and Brussels as many believed that the UK would remain in both during the two year transitional period, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator, had expected the UK to follow all of the EU’s rules during this period. However, a few days later The Times reported that the EU was ready to “row back” on UK fishing quotas during the transition period. Despite the claims that the UK would have to follow the complete architecture of the bloc’s rules the EU was in fact willing to compromise on fisheries and farming, accepting that it was not reasonable to expect the UK to follow rules and regulations it no longer had any say in setting. However, in January 2018 the Guardian ran an article they claimed as an exclusive stating that “UK would essentially be leaving Common Fisheries Policy in name only after Brexit” as the EU would force British fishermen to continue to comply with EU regulations and fishing quotas during the two year transitional period. The following month an article in the Express stated that Theresa May had sided with Michael Gove and had agreed to fight this, with May now set to “refuse EU demands for Brussels to set Britain’s fishing quotas during the two-year Brexit transition period.”
Transition Deal Provokes Outrage in Fishing Industry
In March 2018 David Davis, the UK Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator announced that the UK and the EU had agreed a Brexit transition deal. This would be a period of twenty-one months between Britain leaving the EU in March 2019 and December 2020 during which the UK would be able to agree trade deals with non-EU nations in preparation for fully leaving the EU. In return the UK government made concessions on the rights of EU citizens who arrive in the UK during the transition period and agreed that Northern Ireland would be able to stay in the EU’s Customs Union when the rest of the UK leaves the EU if no other solution to the Irish border problem had been found. However, the biggest concession the UK made was on fisheries. Despite the talk by many high profile politicians of the UK leaving the Common Fisheries Policy on the day of Brexit in March 2019 the transition deal which was struck kept the UK following EU Common Fisheries Rules until at least the end of the transition phase in December 2020. The UK will be consulted on changes to fisheries rules and quotas during this period, but will say or influence to change anything.
The UK fishing industry reacted with fury to this, with Bertie Armstrong, the chief executive of the Scottish Fisherman’s Federation, saying that the transitional deal meant that the UK fishing industry would be at the “whim and largesse of the EU for another two years” and demanded a “cast iron guarantee” that the UK would regain full control of its fisheries after the transitional phase was over. Michael Gove – who had talked up Britain’s prospects of taking back control of fishing stocks during the transition period – called the deal “sub-optimal” and Nigel Farage said that the he did not believe that the government had the “guts or the strength to stand up and take back our territorial waters.” He also took part in a protest on a fishing boat on the Thames outside Parliament where dead haddock were thrown into the river in protest at the transition deal. However, the reaction of the thirteen Scottish Conservative MPs along with one DUP MP and Ruth Davidson was much more worrying for the government. They likened the transitional deal to “drink[ing] a pint of cold sick” and warned that they would be prepared to vote down any deal which did not return full control of British fishing waters to UK fishermen. Alastair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, said that the mood in fishing communities was one of “palpable anger” following the announcement of the transitional deal.
The fact that the UK will not take back control of its fisheries and will remain signed up to the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy for at least the twenty-one month transitional phase has led to real fears that the UK will not leave the CFP at all. Indeed, the way in which the government has capitulated to EU demands for Britain to stay in the CFP despite the high level claims that this would not be the case has caused many fishermen to now believe that their industry will be sold out once again, as it was under Heath. Attempts to assure fishermen that this will not happen have come from Michael Gove who has said that he shares the fishing industries “disappointment” over the transitional deal but urged them to keep their “eyes on the prize” of regaining control of British fishing grounds after the transition phase ends at the end of 2020.
Assuming that the UK does indeed leave the Common Fisheries Policy after the transition phase there are practical and logistical issues which will have to be worked through before the UK takes back control of its fisheries. On the World of Business programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in August 2017 Professor Richard Barnes, an internationally recognised expert in the law of the sea at the University of Hull, believe that the status quo of current CFP rules will be “maintained for the next five to ten years” due to the amount of time the UK would have to spend to set up new rules, regulations and laws on quotas, and fishing rights.
Another major issues is that of trade. The UK already exports large amounts of the fish caught in British waters to the EU, and imports much of the fish consumed domestically from countries which are not in the EU but are in the Single Market (such as Iceland and Norway). In this way UK and EU trade in fish is very closely linked and EU nations feel that they are in a strong position to demand access to UK waters in order to allow the UK to continue with this arrangement. Indeed, representatives of the Danish fishing industry have already said that if Britain wants to be able to export fish to European markets then they will demand access to British waters in return. In any trade deal which is made between Britain and the EU there will be huge pressure from European governments to try to make sure that access to British waters is written into the deal. UK fishermen have responded by saying that they can simply sell the fish they catch outside of the EU if there is no longer a deal to export British catches into the EU.
As with all Brexit negotiations the deals which are reached over fisheries and likely to be tense and complicated. The British fishing industry is united in demanding that the UK takes its chance to reclaim its own fishing grounds after decades of what they see as mismanagement, unfair policies and practices which are hugely damaging to fish stocks under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. The productive and well-managed fisheries of Norway and Iceland are proof that fish stocks can be restored and fishing industries expanded outside of the EU, and proponents of the EU will do well to remember that the European Union itself has apologised for the damage that the Common Fisheries Policy has done to Europe’s fish stocks.
This article will continue to be updated as more information on Brexit and Britain’s fisheries emerges.