Brexit has finally come to an apparent conclusion. The deal was struck on Christmas Eve between negotiating parties, if not by those who will need to ratify. The debate has already begun on whether the UK’s fleet has been soled out or if, to corrupt a promise from Boris, the industry will be turbot charged. The answer may be hidden in the sands of time.
In recent history, there have been some notable landmarks to changes in fishing water access. A sensible starting point was the London Fisheries Convention in 1964, allowing signatories to fish in each others’ waters from 6 to 12 miles from the coast. Under the terms of the convention, the British government gave notice to withdraw in 2017, the process completed in 2019.
Membership of the European Economic Community came into effect in 1973, with Ted Heath’s government famously including fishing as a shared resource, a measure introduced by the EEC in 1970, coinciding with membership applications.
In the meantime, Iceland had noted fish stock decline outside its own territorial waters, which had been 12 miles from 1961 to 50 miles in 1972 then 200 miles in 1975. What had been an active fishing ground for UK trawlers became severely limited, then closed off completely.
A British response was to extend its own territorial waters or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to 200 miles, as did the rest of what was by now the European Community (EC) in 1976. Spain, later to become an EU Member was given limited fishing rights in EU waters in 1980 prior to joining in 1985. Through the 1980s, a number of Spanish vessels had registered in the UK, indulging in the practice of “quota hopping”, effectively taking British quota in UK waters, landing catches in Spain.
The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was established in 1983, covering conservation of stocks, vessels and installations, market controls, and external agreements with other nations. Provisions were made to review policies every 10 years. The concept of Total Allowable Catch (TAC)was introduced, effectively a quota system.
The UK government of the 1980s sought to curtail quota hopping through the introduction of the merchant Shipping Act 1988, specifying ownership requirements for British registered vessels. This led to the notorious legal challenge from the Spanish Factortame company, brought under EU law. Ultimately, the Factortame case became key in aspects of law where the EU could be argued to have supremacy over member states’ law.
The 1990s saw several developments in CFP evolution as overfishing became apparent. Notably, efforts were made to reduce fleet size. This can be argued to have been a landmark time as boats were decommissioned whilst quotas became transferable, influencing access to British waters. The concept of Maximum Sustainable Yield was adopted as a feature of EU policy on which to base TAC and quota decisions in 2010, implemented from 2015.
In parallel, the United Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was being developed, consolidating maritime law. Whilst signed originally by 117 nations in 1982, it originally came into effect in 1994, currently with 168 parties having ratified, a further 14 signed and awaiting ratification.. This convention covers different aspects of marine law, including mineral extraction as well as fishing.
So what did our government seek to achieve?
Ostensibly, control of our laws, borders, money and waters. On the latter, Boris claimed the starting point was to regain an unrealistic 80% of EU quota in these waters over 3 years, the EU to limit losses to 15% over 14 years.
UNCLOS gives us definitions of maritime boundaries. It also recognises the migration of fish. It
gives us provision to negotiate fishing access to waters of other countries who share migratory fish stocks. It also requires us to establish general obligations for safeguarding the marine environment. Yes, in theory we can exclude others from our waters 100% which is impractical if we are to safeguard migratory stocks.
The current UK government has made post-Brexit agreements with other nations; Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Norway and now the EU. The EU ostensibly prefers multi-annual agreements but have agreed year by year deals too.
Perhaps expectations had been unduly raised, whether by the media or by the government. Would we exclude the EU totally from our waters? If so, would we expect to be totally excluded from Norwegian stocks which may have spawned in British waters? Of course, the media can pick up on any angle it chooses. Does the government have a duty to correct? Were the real objectives hidden from the EU?
Regular readers of these pages will have noted advocacy for a diplomatic approach, to assist our future partners in managed reduction of fishing access. By taking the stance of moral superiority, diplomacy would hopefully lead to positive compromise on other issues. It can be argued that a responsible British government would not seek to destroy coastal communities in neighbouring maritime states overnight.
In any event, had these negotiations failed, the default position would be UNCLOS. British trawling capacity has been reduced over the years. We would be unable to manage stocks effectively in the short term, the fleet size being insufficient. Tariffs would also have been applicable to exports.
The “deal” as announced gives a reduction in EU fishing access of 25% over 5.5 years, 15% of that up front for 2021, the remainder phased in, the beneficiaries ultimately British trawlers. It is a challenge to find out what that means in practical terms, given the fragmented ownership of fishing quotas. There is a lack of total clarity from the published agreement and difficulty in compilation of landing data in other countries, both EU and outside.
The government press release line is that British quota in British waters will yield an extra £146 million to the British industry. That would apparently take the UK catch from less than half to around 2/3rds. Given the ONS figure of £437 million (if this is the correct measure to take) as the British value of catch in 2019, that would mean an increase in revenues to the UK fleet of 33%, apparently significant to produce extra investment in capacity over the next 5.5 years.
That ONS figure presumably does not count catches landed in other EU27 countries rather than in British waters since a large part of imports are caught in UK waters, landed and processed in the EU before re-export. Other data sources suggest much higher figures,
There are of course other unanswered questions, perhaps understandable for a deal finalised on Christmas Eve, with publication rushed to Boxing Day ready for a vote two working days later.
The published deal includes quota allocations for several species in several different fishing areas from 2021. The first big question is that since 2020 figures for catches are still being compiled, there may or may not be a different basis for allocations. EU catches in British waters have grown faster than the domestic fleet over the last decade. If based on 2020 quota allocations, there is reason for the British to be disgruntled.
Elsewhere, those EU trawlers are still entitled to access to territorial waters, i.e. within the 12 mile limit, if their quotas date back to 4 years between 2012 and 2016. If those years were used in determining quota allocation, that would seem to give the British fleet more advantageous terms than if later figures are taken.
The detail of those fish species and grounds is presented in percentage terms rather than absolute values. Further analysis is required. It is almost certain that not all fishing areas are equal in value.
There are almost certainly quirks too, some of which may give a clue as to what sort of negotiations took place within the EU 27. The EU allocation in the Western Channel area, remains at around 90% of previous cod quota allocation for the 5.5 year duration, clearly not a 15% reduction by any measure.
Does that mean that there have been bigger cuts in other species in other areas? This is where the French have had high quota, Macron having been vocal on the issue, perhaps understandably given CFP quota cuts in the Western Mediterranean as well as issues in the Bay of Biscay and the Iberian Atlantic coast. We may never know the trade offs made behind EU closed doors.
What is for certain is that those who wish a supper of Cornwall caught cod are more likely to find it in a Provencal dish in a restaurant overlooking Mont St Michel than battered with chips overlooking St Michael’s Mount.
It remains to be seen whether chip shops around the country can expect to serve British cod and haddock instead of current imports from Norway, Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, even Russia.
Perhaps parliamentary debate might answer whether we can finally reintroduce the Merchant Shipping Act 1988. If the totemic moment can be reversed, that would surely be a clue as to whether control has reverted to the UK.
Similarly, there are fishing practices that we may wish to see outlawed, notably pulse and super trawlers or catching in MPAs. The proof of the fish pie is in the eating but it would appear that there is nothing to stop either, within certain constraints.
Those Russian super trawlers no longer have a connection with British waters since we are no longer EU members. The British registered Cornelis Vrolijk has an estimated 23% of English quota. There would seem to be a case to argue that it would not be discriminatory to also ban those super trawlers from Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Lithuania.
Sovereignty may not be complete in British waters but if our legislators can move decisively and constructively to support sustainable fisheries, then the compromises made can at least be sellable. Given that the UK has never had prioritised access to such a large area of fishing, the sector, the EU being its largest export market with no threat of tariffs on an industry that exports 60% of its current output.
The final verdict will depend on perspective. The outcomes are not as fantastic as claims made prior to the agreement but have merit. For many, higher quota in a shorter period of time would have been considered achievable. The downside of alternatives has been minimised although the opportunity may not have been maximised.
There would appear to be significant gains for the British fleet with the opportunity to invest. Compared to the alternative, there are tariff free markets in which to sell catches not widely consumed domestically or products of higher value. Potential hostility has probably been avoided in export distribution channels. Ultimately, it remains to be seen what advantages British governments will take from new found apparent freedoms.