Tories’ fishy promises could get gutted in Brexit talks

by Luke Lythgoe | 13.03.2018

Top Tories have vowed that fishermen will get a “fairer” share of fish caught in UK waters post-Brexit. The prime minister made her fishy promise in her Mansion House speech earlier this month. Arch-Brexiter Michael Gove and Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader who backed Remain, made the same vow in a joint statement yesterday.

Fishing is a hot button issue, especially for Scottish Tories. Gove, a Scot whose dad owned a fish processing firm in Aberdeen,  made a promise to take back control of our fishing in his first major announcement as environment secretary. During last year’s general election Davidson signed the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation Brexit pledge which among other things committed her to fight the “enforced giveaway of almost two-thirds of our fish stocks”.

Fishing communities voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. They see the current system, which sets the quotas that each nation’s fleets can fish in different EU waters, as unfair. The value of fish landed by UK vessels in other EU waters were roughly £100 million in 2014, while £400 million was caught by EU vessels in waters that would be in the UK’s zone if we weren’t an EU member.

Both the government and fishing industry leaders accept EU vessels will have access to UK waters after Brexit. But the industry wants access to be “on UK terms”.

In contrast, the EU said in its negotiating guidelines this month that “existing reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources should be maintained”.

This is, of course, just an opening shot. But the EU’s bargaining power is stronger than ours, as we need it more than it needs us and it might seek to tie what happens with fishing to access for our other industries to its markets.

But even before looking at other industries, there’s the matter of selling fish. UK consumers favour a small number of popular species. So our fishermen need to sell lots of the fish they catch abroad. In 2014 we exported £1 billion of fish to the EU and imported £850 million. If the EU said we’d only be able to sell our unwanted fish to it provided we continued to let its fishermen trawl in our waters after Brexit, we’d face a devil’s choice.

Another of Gove’s and Davidson’s pledges – that the UK will leave the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy “as of March 2019” – could also get gutted. Yes, we will technically quit it next year, assuming Brexit goes ahead. But the prime minister also wants a transition period of about two years to cushion the blow. The EU is saying to get that we’ll have to follow all its rules during the interregnum. Will it make an exemption for fishing? Don’t count on it.

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    This piece has been updated to remove the word “all” in the first sentence. 

    Edited by Hugo Dixon