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UK fishermen would be worse off outside the EU

by Andy Lebrecht | 18.05.2016

The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has been one of the more controversial aspects of the UK’s EU membership. Would our fishing interests gain by leaving the EU? Or would they be weaker and worse off?

The CFP aims to regulate fishing in Europe’s seas so that fish stocks can replenish for future fishermen. It does this primarily by placing limits called Total Allowable Catches (TACs) on the amount of each fish stock that can be caught, to ensure annual yields are consistent with conservation of the stock.

There are also measures to prevent catches of immature and undersized fish. A major reform, which the UK championed in 2013 following a campaign by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, banned wasteful discarding of fish at sea and required future TACs to be in line with strict scientific criteria.

While the UK fishing industry is not big – employing just under 12,000 in 2014 – it does have political weight. The antipathy of many UK fishermen to the CFP stems from the EU’s decision, taken before UK accession, to allow EU fishermen access to all EU seas. Many UK fishermen saw this as provocative because countries’ national fishing limits were being extended from 12 to 200 miles, and UK seas were more extensive than those of other EU members.

But the CFP adopted in 1983 largely restored British fishermen’s sole right to fish in the UK’s 6 and 12 mile zones. It also divided TACs into quotas for every country with a tradition of fishing the stocks concerned. The quota shares are based on historic fishing patterns and are fixed. The system has prevented conflicts over quotas and made TAC shares stable and predictable. It has also ensured that countries with no tradition of fishing in a particular area – such as Spain in the North Sea – cannot access TACs in that area.

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    So would British fishing interests be better off if the UK left the EU? Some fishermen believe so. They argue that the UK has Europe’s second-largest fishing fleet by gross tonnage and that if the UK controlled its own waters it could restrict fishing there to British vessels. Is this realistic?

    If Brexit occurs, the Westminster and devolved governments would need to devise a fisheries policy. There has been little discussion of what this might look like but its major elements would probably closely mirror the CFP. The key question would be on what basis TACs and quotas were decided. The assertion is that the Westminster and devolved governments could decide. In reality, there would have to be agreement with the EU.

    The reason is that most fish stocks in UK waters also swim in the waters of other EU member states and/or Norway. Those countries would be able to fish on these “shared stocks” without regard to UK interests. So, to prevent a free for all and consequent overfishing, the UK, EU and Norway would need to agree on TACs, quotas and reciprocal access, just as Norway and the EU do now for their shared stocks.

    Would the UK then be able to secure a “better” allocation of fishing rights or reciprocal access? It is difficult to see how. The original settlement on quotas and access rights has lasted 30 years and was itself based on historic fishing patterns. No other country would readily give up its long held rights. Nor would the UK have leverage to force a change. It would need a deal to prevent overfishing as much as other countries.

    British fishermen would face considerably worsened prospects outside the EU. First, the UK would lose or have to pay for fishing rights in North Norwegian waters that are largely acquired by transfers to Norway from other EU states’ fishing allocations. Second, tariff free access for fish exports to the EU market (worth £950 million in 2015) would be at risk. Finally, the UK’s absence from EU policy making could result in weaker conservation policy, which would harm stocks shared with the UK. The better course would be to continue fighting to improve the CFP from inside the EU, building on the government’s success in the reforms of 2013.

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

    Edited by Michael Prest