Expert View

Better deal for UK fishermen will be hard to catch

by Andy Lebrecht | 02.11.2016

Andy Lebrecht is a former Director-General for Food and Farming at Defra and UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU.

George Eustice, the fisheries minister, recently claimed that British fishermen will be able to catch hundreds of thousands of tonnes more of fish after Brexit. Fishing for Leave, a campaign organisation, has promised “a golden opportunity to regain 70% of the UK’s fisheries resources and rejuvenate a multi billion pound industry for the nation”. It’s true that fishing constituencies largely voted Leave and fishing interests saw the opportunity to escape from the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and to correct the “historic inequities” built into its quotas. But are these expectations realistic?

Superficially, Brexit seems to put the UK in a strong position. The UK will set its own conservation rules (minimum mesh sizes, ban on discards etc) for vessels fishing in its waters. It will have an independent voice in setting annual Total Allowable Catches (TACs) alongside the EU and Norway. And granting access to UK waters for EU fishing vessels, and vice-versa, will no longer be automatic but a matter for negotiation. Given that, overall, EU vessels are more dependent on fishing in UK waters than the reverse, these factors, it is argued, will give the UK leverage to extract a “fairer” share of the TACs.

However, the UK doesn’t hold all the cards. First, whilst the Scottish fishing fleet depends relatively little on non-UK waters, the English fleet traditionally catches its fish in Irish, French and Norwegian, as well as UK, waters. Retaining access to those waters will be an essential demand for the UK.

Second, the basis of each country’s quotas is historical catch records dating back to 1973 that the UK has accepted and defended since the quotas were introduced in 1983. The EU can be expected to resist strongly any attempt to reset such a well-established basis for allocating quotas. The UK will have difficulty making a persuasive case for a different allocation principle.

Third, the UK industry depends heavily on fish exports to the EU and so is vulnerable to tariffs. The UK exported £921m of fish (including £224m salmon) to the EU in 2015 whereas total landings in 2015 (which exclude salmon) were worth £775m. Its primary supplier of fish is Iceland, followed well behind by China, Germany and Norway. Countries such as France and Spain would have every incentive to demand high tariffs on fish imports from the UK. “Access to markets” and “access to waters” will be linked.

Fourth, UK vessels benefit from rights to fish large quantities of cod in North Norwegian waters that are “paid for” by transfers to Norway of other stocks which are mainly of value to other EU countries. Maintaining this arrangement will be another UK demand.

So the UK’s leverage to extract radical improvements is limited. The prospects of the UK and EU (and Norway) agreeing on any access and quota regime that is significantly different from the status quo look slim.

However, the UK could refuse to agree a “bad deal” and go its own way – which some fishermen want to do. The UK could set its own quotas and exclude EU vessels from its waters. No doubt the EU would do likewise.

But this is not sustainable. Higher quotas would result in overfishing and damage the stocks. Trade barriers would be erected. UK vessels would lose access to North Norwegian cod and to fishing grounds in French and Irish waters. But most importantly, excluding EU fishermen from the extensive UK seas would be fraught with difficulty. The many hundreds of fishermen from the eight countries that traditionally fish in UK waters are unlikely to stay in port and lose their livelihoods. More probably they will assert their “rights” to fish in their traditional grounds. UK vessels may do likewise in EU members’ waters.

The UK authorities would need to step up their enforcement dramatically. A determined and sustained effort would be needed in the face of continuing resistance. Relations with the countries concerned could be strained by arrests and clashes at sea. It seems improbable the UK would take on such risks and costs for the sake of securing likely marginal gains for an industry contributing well under 1% of GDP.

Without doubt, the UK would benefit from freedom to set technical rules for its own fisheries once outside the EU. But to avoid hefty trade barriers, secure effective conservation of its fisheries and avoid prolonged conflict at sea and with its neighbours, it will need to reach agreement with the EU on quotas and access to each other’s waters. In reality, this can only be on terms close to the status quo.

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    Edited by Michael Prest

    Tags: Categories: Articles, Industry

    2 Responses to “Better deal for UK fishermen will be hard to catch”

    • Like many farmers who voted themselves out of a large market and lots of subsidies the U.K. Fishermen appear stupid enough to think the government would see the fisheries issues from their point of view and antagonize EU interests in British waters with restrictions and some tough enforcement. Furthermore, many fishermen sold their British fishing rights into the EU. Go take a look on the port of Scheveningen: big Dutch vessels with a Portsmouth registration. How do these fishing clowns think that that issue is going to be solved? These Dutch people have bought the rights to fishing in UK waters. Imagine the rumpus when that all of a sudden is no longer possible.