Gove plots treacherous course for fishing after Brexit

by Luke Lythgoe | 03.07.2017

Michael Gove, recently returned to the cabinet as environment secretary, has chosen to make his first big splash on the UK’s post-Brexit fisheries policy. On Sunday the former Vote Leave frontman confirmed the government’s intention to leave the London Fisheries Convention. Gove duly grabbed headlines, but his opening salvo is unhelpful.

The convention was signed in 1964 and lets six European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands as well as the UK) fish within six and 12 nautical miles of each other’s coasts. It is not linked to Britain’s EU membership, but the announcement allows Gove to claim an early victory in “taking back control” of the UK’s waters even though Brexit negotiations have barely begun.

The move will likely please those in the fishing industry, who overwhelmingly supported Brexit. But this early display of coastal nationalism does nothing to foster goodwill ahead of Britain negotiating its withdrawal from the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – an exit  which the environment secretary promises will enable the UK to become an “independent coastal state” and “extend control of our waters up to 200 miles”.

Gove told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that the CFP had been “an environmental disaster”; leaving it would ensure that Britain could have “sustainable fish stocks for the future”. His argument is disingenuous. Gove is correct that the CFP was considered environmentally damaging for much of its history. But he fails to mention reforms in recent years – often driven by the UK government – which have set sustainable catch limits and implemented a phased ban on discarding perfectly edible fish. In 2015, Gove’s own department was hailing CFP reforms for “ensuring sustainable fish stocks” and delivering “substantial quota increases” for UK fishermen; the result would be a “more profitable industry”. Coordinating the fisheries policies of 28 member states is a complex task, and Brexit threatens to pull the UK out of a system which is finally achieving positive results.

Gove says the UK “will decide the terms of access” to its fisheries. His attitude risks a breakdown in cooperation with the UK’s neighbours, something that could damage fish stocks and marine ecosystems.  Fish do not respect borders, and agreed quotas prevent stocks being overfished as they pass through different territories. Taken to its logical conclusion, a “you fish your waters, we’ll fish ours” approach risks depleting stocks either accidentally through lack of communication or due to competition between different fleets.

As with much of the tone struck by the government since the Brexit vote, Gove’s hardline rhetoric could also have negative economic consequences – hitting people working in the very industry he claims to champion. More so than many other businesses, fishing relies on tariff-free trade with the EU. Measured by volume, 66% of the UK’s fish exports in 2014 went to the EU – equal to 49% of the 666,000 tonnes of fish landed by UK vessels that year. At the same time, the UK imported some 721,000 tonnes of fish, 32% of which came from the EU.

Gove’s combative approach, as with that of his Cabinet colleagues, can only harm our chances of leaving the EU’s single market with a free trade agreement. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, retorted tartly to Gove’s initiative. Ireland’s marine minister called it “unwelcome and unhelpful”.

Failure to clinch a tariff-free accord would do more than hit British fishermen trying to sell their catches to Europe. It would also raise prices of imported fish for consumers and for the fish processing industry, which directly employs some 14,000 people. The industry also benefits from EU agreements with non-EU countries that are willing to export set quantities of their fish at reduced rates, something the UK would miss out on after Brexit. The Norwegians, who are members of the single market but not the CFP, consider tariffs a “serious obstacle to trade”.

A gung-ho Gove at the helm of Britain’s fisheries policy could therefore get a bad deal for the industry and consumers, while risking the environmental disaster he claims to be averting. Not a prize catch by anyone’s standards.

Edited by Alan Wheatley

9 Responses to “Gove plots treacherous course for fishing after Brexit”

  • I don’t know a great deal about Fisheries legislation, but I would guess that Gove is a far bigger disaster for the country than the 1964 Convention.

  • I agree with the thrust of the article. About Michel Barnier’s tweet, I suppose Gove would say that the UK would fall-back to the London Convention rules when the UK exits the EU and is no longer subject to the Common Fisheries Policy.

    One thing I’d like to know: what happens in the case a country’s 200-mile limit overlaps another country’s 200-mile limit? Anybody know that?

    • Starting at the point where both 200 mile limits touch, a line is drawn in such a way that every point along it is equidistant from the nearest point of land of each state (also termed the median bisector). Thus the limit is less than 200 mile in such places.

    • If you Google “200 mile limit UK” images, you can find maps of the fishing limits. Notice, if you exclude Scotland, how little English and Welsh fishermen would have to sail in.

  • Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe that only about 1.4% of fish caught in inshore waters is by foreign boats. So stopping this is not likely to make much of a difference to British fishermen while preventing them fishing in foreign waters including the important and local coastline of Ireland,

    Sounds to me more like bad news for the UK fishing industry than good.

  • This kind of stuff is usually the matter you discuss BEFORE voting to leave … not afterwards. How long will it take for the UK to admit their referendum got things the wrong way around?

  • Very true I have seen it first hand what the CFP has done to my family and friends fishing industry . EU boat’s land 100 thousand tones of fish yet we only allowed the 5th of that . the past 25 years we had 40 fishing boats in stmawes Falmouth, flushing , Cornwall now just 4 EU got to answers for.
    But this news report is anti brexit and have no idea about finishing. Soore rubbish by elite London bubble.

    • “You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
      When they Brexit us and throw us, with the lobsters out to sea!”
      But the London bubble snail replied “too far!”, and looked askance –
      Said he thanked D.Whiting kindly, but he would not join the dance.
      Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance.
      Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join the dance.