The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has not always been successful in achieving its objectives of managing a mobile and renewable resource sustainably. Furthermore, the application of centrally adopted technical measures, such as gear types and net sizes, the allocations of quotas and the principle of equal access have historically led many in the industry to argue that the CFP is not only unfit for purpose, but is also unfair to the UK. Nevertheless, with UK leadership, the recent reform of the CFP towards regionalisation, maximum sustainable yield, and the banning of discards has meant considerable improvement.
Withdrawing from the European Union will mean withdrawing from the CFP. But fish know nothing of political borders and most commercial fish stocks are shared between UK waters and those of other EU or European coastal states. Species of fish may spend different stages of their life cycles in different nations’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), and their spawning grounds may be in a different region from that in which they are caught when mature. These stocks are vulnerable to exploitation on either side of the political borders.
The fishing industry represents a very small part of the UK’s GDP. Yet it is of great importance to many coastal communities across the UK. Successful fisheries management is also vital to the health of the wider marine environment. Withdrawing from the CFP gives the UK the opportunity to develop a fisheries management regime that is tailored to the conditions of UK waters and its fleet.
Fisheries management is a devolved matter for which the CFP has provided a common framework across the Devolved Nations. Post-Brexit this framework will fall away, raising the potential of four differing UK fisheries management regimes. Yet for the purpose of Brexit negotiations the UK must act as a single coastal state. Devolved Administrations must therefore be taken into account from the outset to ensure that a unified UK negotiation position on fisheries and Brexit is formed, based on co-operation with the four Devolved nations and their fishing industries.
The UK Government will be in a position to renegotiate its quota of Total Allowable Catches (TACs) for stocks that are shared with the EU and other neighbouring countries, taking account of the full lifecycle of mobile stocks. Once outside the EU, the UK can represent its own interests in vital international fisheries negotiations with neighbouring states. The Government must assess which of the many agreements upheld by the EU with key northern neighbours it wishes to replace, and establish the UK’s seat in Regional Fisheries Management Organisations.
Significantly, the UK will also be able to control access by foreign vessels to UK waters, though withdrawal from the CFP will not in itself solve the issue of ‘quota hopping’. Access could be a lever for the Government when negotiating new allocations of TACs for shared stocks, bearing in mind that fish must be exploited sustainably. In keeping with its commitments under international law, the UK should continue to co-operate with its maritime neighbours on fisheries management to ensure the sustainable management of these resources on the basis of scientific advice.
Fisheries also have an important trade angle. The majority of fish caught by UK fleets are exported—mostly to EU Member States. A successful catching industry therefore needs continued market access. The majority of fish consumed in the UK are imported. Continued access to free, or preferential, trade in fish and seafood will therefore be crucial for the seafood industry and UK consumers. In approaching the wider Brexit negotiations, the Government must seek to preserve the UK’s access to low-tariff exports and imports in fish.
Fisheries policy is a complex area, which cannot be solved in its entirety by the Great Repeal Bill. Untangling UK fisheries from the EU will be challenging and require political will and resources, both in the wider Brexit negotiations and beyond. From the day of withdrawal from the EU the UK will need to have in place arrangements with the EU and third countries with which the EU has fisheries agreements, so that shared stocks can be managed, access arrangements for UK vessels fishing outside UK waters can be negotiated to the mutual satisfaction of the parties, and trade in fish products can continue.
Many in the fishing industry were vocal in their support of Brexit and have declared the vote to leave a great opportunity for the sector. Notwithstanding the comparatively small contribution of fisheries to the UK economy, the voices of the industry, the coastal communities that support, and thrive on, the industry, and its supply chains must be heard in the wider Brexit negotiations.