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Analysis

Gove’s fishy party trick

by Nick Kent | 05.07.2018

UK fishermen will be able to catch more fish after Brexit and continue to export to EU countries, according to Michael Gove’s fisheries white paper. Sadly, it is not that simple.

Taking back control of fishing was an iconic issue for Leave campaigners. They argued that the fishing industry had been ruined by EU membership because EU boats are nicking much of our fish. While they have a point about the historical basis of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the UK’s fishing fleet has not fallen as fast or as deeply as that of many other Member States (including Spain); the UK’s catch was the second highest in the EU in 2016; and the UK fishing industry is highly profitable (page 84). 

In a white paper that uses the word “control” 25 times, the emphasis is on the UK being in charge of its own waters. The government will insist on separating the issues of access to our waters from market access for fish exports; quotas for catches will be retained; and the practice of throwing fish back once the quota has been reached will end (actually the EU decided that several years ago).

It all sounds lovely but there are at least three big problems with Gove’s approach.

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The first is that while separating access to our waters from market access in the EU may be in our interests, the EU is unlikely to agree. The UK largely exports what it catches (67% to the EU) and imports what it consumes (69% from outside the EU). It is no good catching more fish if you can’t sell them.

Gove’s second problem is that no matter what he does, the British fishing fleet is not going back to the size it was before we joined. Past overfishing, the introduction of fishing quotas and changes in technology have put paid to that. Worse, the change in international law allowing coastal countries to declare a 200 mile exclusive economic zone from their shores has all but shut the UK out of Icelandic and Canadian waters. 

The third difficulty is the dependence of the fish processing sector on EU migrants to fill jobs that British people don’t want. Almost twice as many people work in fish processing compared to those out fishing – and often in deprived coastal communities.  

The biggest gap in this white paper is the failure to address UK policy issues. These include fairer allocations within the UK fishing fleet – English policy is currently to discriminate in favour of large vessels. There is only a commitment to “review” the foreign ownership of vessels on the UK register despite the bizarre fact that just one Dutch-owned trawler has 23% of the entire English fishing quota.

In addition, the government hasn’t reached agreement with the devolved administrations, most importantly Scotland, on future policy. Finally, it won’t commit to replacing the €243 million of EU funding for 2014-20 after Brexit.

With stocks recovering after years of setting tight quotas to save Europe’s fish, UK fishermen ought to be reaping the benefits. Instead they are the victims of a political game in which Brexiters pretend the industry can have all the benefits of EU membership but without any of the disadvantages. When negotiations get going on fishing they may get a nasty shock.

Edited by Hugo Dixon