On leaving the EU, the UK will become an independent coastal state responsible for managing its own marine resources for the first time in over 40 years. The Committee launched this inquiry in January 2018 to examine how the interests of the Northern Ireland fishing industry should be reflected in the Government’s new domestic fisheries policy and the wider negotiations on the UK’s exit from the EU. As part of the inquiry, we travelled to the fishing village of Portavogie. We visited the harbour, fish processing facilities and met with local industry stakeholders. We also took evidence from local fishermen to discuss the challenges they face and their hopes for the future. The Northern Ireland fishing industry has enormous potential, post-Brexit, to generate more jobs and greater economic benefit for coastal communities, as well as contribute further to the wider Northern Ireland economy. To realise these benefits, the Government must act to secure the best Brexit deal, address the governance gap created by suspension of devolved government and address long running structural problems such as crewing shortages and harbour infrastructure.
Securing the best Brexit deal
As an independent coastal state, the UK will have sovereign rights under international law to conserve, manage and exploit the marine resources within its territorial waters. Fishermen told us that the current allocation of fishing opportunity under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is unfair because it permits EU fishing boats too much access to fish in UK waters. The Government’s White Paper describes the EU’s allocation method, known as relative stability, as outdated. The Government proposed a gradual, cautious and negotiated move towards a new method of zonal attachment, based on scientific data about the extent to which fish reside within a country’s territorial waters. It remains unclear how allocation of fishing opportunity under this new system will change access to fish for the Northern Ireland fleet or the level of access EU boats will have to UK waters. We recommend that the Government clarify how it intends to exercise its rights under international law to secure a significant redistribution of fishing opportunity in UK waters. We further recommend that the Government explains how quota allocation based on zonal attachment will differ from the status quo for the Northern Ireland fleet, and the criteria that will be used to permit access by foreign vessels to fishing opportunity in UK waters after Brexit.
Negotiating a good deal for the Northern Ireland fishing industry is not just about attaining increased quota but also securing continued access for Norther Ireland’s fisheries products to EU markets. The EU is an important export market for the Northern Ireland fishing sector and represents 36% of the total value of its sales. As negotiations are ongoing, it remains unclear whether tariffs or additional regulatory checks will be required for trade in fisheries produce with the EU in future. Fishermen in Northern Ireland who catch shellfish species, which are not subject to catch limits set by the EU, may face the prospect of increased costs without receiving the benefits of increased fishing opportunity.
The Government should secure an agreement with the EU on both future fisheries management and wider UK-EU relations that enables Northern Ireland to capitalise on the opportunities presented by Brexit. In a no-deal scenario, in which trade in fisheries products is subject to the EU’s common external tariff, the gains implied by the exclusion of EU fishermen from the UK waters could be offset to an extent that is both unclear and uneven across the sector.
Risks during the implementation period
The Draft Withdrawal Agreement established that the UK will remain in the CFP during the implementation period (should there be one) up to 31 December 2020. However, the UK, as a non-member state, will not have a place at the negotiating table for the annual fisheries negotiations in December 2019, and its influence on EU fisheries governance bodies will be reduced. The absence of UK representation around the table at the December 2019 Fisheries Council, and in other fisheries governance bodies that influence the Commission’s decisions, could result in disadvantage to the UK fishing industry. The vague language and general terms which sufficed for the Draft Agreement will not be acceptable in the final text. We recommend that the final text of the Withdrawal Agreement, or accompanying documentation, clarify: how the UK will be able to influence important fisheries governance bodies during the implementation period and what action the UK can take if it believes the EU is not acting in good faith. The Government must set out how it will make clear to the EU that opportunism would not be tolerated, that its good faith would be on trial and that failure would have consequences.
Suspension of the Voisinage Arrangement
The Voisinage Arrangement is an informal agreement which allows Ireland and Northern Ireland vessels reciprocal access to fish in the 0–6 nautical mile zone of each other’s territorial waters. Ireland suspended access for Northern Ireland vessels under the terms of Voisinage following a decision of its Supreme Court in October 2016. The Irish Government has attempted to introduce legislation to reinstate Voisinage but its Bill received heavy criticism in the Irish Parliament. It has remained at committee stage since March 2017. As a result, while Irish fishermen have access to waters in Northern Ireland, fishermen in Northern Ireland have suffered hardship through exclusion from their habitual fishing grounds. This needs to be resolved. The Government must structure talks with the Irish Government to establish the future of reciprocal access for Northern Irish vessels under the Voisinage Arrangement. If the Irish Government does not give a clear commitment to pass, within 6 months of publication of this report, legislation which restores reciprocal access, the Government must discontinue access to UK waters for Irish vessels from 30 March 2019.
Life after the CFP: domestic fisheries policy in Northern Ireland
The Government’s White Paper contains a number of proposals, such as changes to how fishing opportunity is shared between the UK fleet, which refer only to England. Fisheries is a devolved matter in the UK. However, in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, there is no capacity for Northern Ireland to take decisions on its future fisheries policy. If the Executive is not restored by the end of the year, the UK Government must be prepared to take such decisions and prevent Northern Ireland from falling behind the other devolved administrations in preparing their fishing fleets for Brexit.
The Government’s White Paper is silent with regards to two long running structural problems for the Northern Ireland fishing industry; crewing shortages and infrastructure investment. The Committee heard that crushing manpower shortages, exacerbated by the UK’s current immigration rules, pose an existential threat to fishing businesses in Northern Ireland. Access to crew will become even more essential if the fleet is to take advantage of increased quota dividends and grow the industry after Brexit. In the short term, we recommend the Government grant a time-limited immigration concession for non-EU/EEA crew to help sustain and develop the fishing industry in Northern Ireland. In the longer term, we recommend the Government creates a visa pathway for fishermen which allows crewing of boats by EU/EEA and non-EU/EEA workers from the 6-nautical mile limit in recognition of the topography of the coast lines surrounding Northern Ireland.
The Committee heard that lack of investment in Northern Ireland’s harbours has resulted in the loss of vital repair services and reduced the economic benefit that local communities receive from the fish caught by the fleet. The Government’s White Paper does not make any clear commitment to continued funding for the fishing industry after the December 2020, nor does it mention infrastructure. We recommend that the Government make a clear commitment to invest in infrastructure at Northern Ireland’s ports to ensure fishermen can bring home the benefits of renegotiated quota to their local communities.
Lough Neagh Eels
For over 40 years, fishermen at Lough Neagh have employed conservation measures such as daily quotas and restocking to ensure both the long-term sustainability of their industry and the European eel population. The European eel is subject to trade restrictions under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). When the UK leaves the EU, Lough Neagh will no longer benefit from an intra-EU exception for trade in European eels and will require a Non-Detriment Finding (NDF) to secure the 80% of its trade which goes to markets in the EU. An NDF finding on the sustainability of Lough Neagh eels could also open the possibility of legal expansion into lucrative Asian eel markets. We recommend that the Government set out, in its response to this report, what steps it has taken to secure a Non-Detriment Finding in advance of the UK’s exit from the EU in March.
The Government should secure an agreement with the EU on both future fisheries management and wider UK-EU relations that enables Northern Ireland’s fishing industry to capitalise on the opportunities presented by Brexit. Providing support for the industry at this important time of change will mean the Government can ensure the benefits of increased fishing opportunity is felt by Northern Ireland’s coastal communities.
Published: 15 September 2018