We should use Brexit to put things right for our fishermen and for fish

A Fishing boat returns, Saltash in Cornwall. England.This post is by Blue Marine Foundation‘s executive director, Charles Clover and first appeared on the foundation’s website. It is a transcript of his speech to a Bright Blue round table on the natural environment post-Brexit, at the House of Commons on 14 December. 

I’d like to tell the story of an independent coastal state that recently took back charge of its own waters and its own fish. It ejected all industrial vessels, including its own trawlers, from within six miles of its coast. It threw out all foreign vessels and is allowing them back in only after they agree to fish to under one of the toughest regimes in the world. The results have been remarkable. There has been a tremendous recovery in stocks and catches by the artisanal fleet have doubled. This has put food on the table and enabled rural people in a poor country to send their children to schools and hospitals.

That state is Liberia, West Africa, and this happened as result of a programme on fisheries governance initiated by the World Bank. I think we need to keep Liberia’s admirable example firmly in mind as we plan for Brexit. For when it comes to the sea, we are about to be in the same boat, legally speaking. If we don’t keep the big picture in mind, if we are not clear about what we want, we will miss some great opportunities. The danger is that we will just use the huge bargaining chip that our fish represent to get some trade deal which will be to the detriment of our marine environment and our local communities. After all, that’s what happened when Britain joined the EU.

Fishermen are right to say that there is a great opportunity. In theory, there’s a lot of fish to share out if we restrict the people who can fish in our waters: some 58 per cent of fish caught here is caught by non-UK fishing boats. That percentage is even higher if you include the British-flagged vessels whose beneficial owners are registered abroad. Of course, we need to sell that fish: we export 80 per cent of our seafood with 66 per cent going to the continent, so, we are going to need to make some concessions on access to avoid tariffs. That’s where some of the uncertainties lie.

Can we get on well enough with our neighbours?
Further uncertainty lies in whether we can get on with our neighbours well enough to manage mobile species in a bilateral, trilateral or multilateral way. Historically we haven’t been very good at it. In the days of the London Convention, I believe some years the nations around the North Sea were unable to agree a Total Allowable Catch, the basic cornerstone of fisheries management. Recently we’ve had a problem with mackerel, between the EU, Iceland, Norway and the Faroes. Then there is the dire state of the bass which is the result of management by individual states before the European Commission stepped in. An urgent priority after Brexit is some kind of dispute resolution mechanism for transboundary issues, such as the environment.

It is important to remember that this is an opportunity to set how people will fish in our waters and not simply how much they will catch. We need a world class fisheries management regime that favours selectivity, that will discipline both those we allow to fish here and our own fleet. For our seas are still overfished. Some 48 per cent of stocks are still not within the maximum sustainable yield (MSY). So there can be no squandering the sound science, MSY, discard ban and protection of spawning and nursery areas in the admirable Common Fisheries Policy reforms, not least because they were lobbied for largely by British campaigners, such as Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, and British politicians. Our stocks need space to recover, and not to be overfished by domestic fleets, which is what simplifying the regime down to ‘days at sea’, as some fishermen’s organisations want, would achieve.

We need more conservation of stocks, not less. We need a reduction in fishing effort in places like the Irish Sea and the Clyde where the cod hasn’t come back and the prawn trawlers’ bycatch of other fish is about 70 per cent of the catch.

The Brexit opportunity
There could be huge advantages for conservation in Brexit. We can set up marine reserves where we like and get rid of foreign fishermen who fish in ways we disapprove of: Dutch and Belgian beam trawlers currently beam trawl over places we have tried to protect, such as the Dogger Bank, and there is nothing we can do about it. We can even stop French and Spanish fishermen hammering our deep water fish.

Two things must happen, if Brexit is to be anything other than entirely negative for the environment or the UK’s fishing industry:

We need to cut the fish more slack if they are going to recover and become even more productive. The Brexit department needs to remember that.

We also have to give our fishermen some slack too. For there is a great opportunity to put right a great wrong here. In a great historical blunder, Defra allocated 97 per cent of our quota to industrial vessels, forgetting the inshore fleet, which employs many more people.

To give our inshore fishermen the chance to prosper we have to be ruthless with the flag ships that EU law said we could not get rid of. For they are where the slack is to be found. They do not have an automatic legal entitlement to quota allocation. Our coastal communities and inshore fishermen – like fishermen in our project in Lyme Bay who can prove they are fishing sustainably – deserve it more.

So in conclusion, the danger is if we do not remember the admirable ambitions of Liberia, we will get something which is bad for fishing communities and bad for the environment and which will let a lot of people down. My worry it that Defra, with its old culture of fudge and mudge, just hasn’t the clear thinking and the capacity to live up to this opportunity.

There is one more opportunity, which must not be forgotten. That is for Britain to become an enlightened voice on regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs), which have an important role in managing migratory stocks across the High Seas, at a time when overfishing is one of the world’s greatest problems. Most of Britain’s tuna comes from the Indian Ocean, where we have a large overseas territory, the Chagos archipelago. Countries such as South Africa would love Britain to play a more active part in managing the Indian Ocean’s tuna stocks, but this is a job we have left to the EU hitherto. If Britain is going to lead the world in creating marine reserves around its overseas territories, it needs to lead the world in managing the oceans or all that good will be undone. Brexit means we can at last step out from the EU’s shadow and be counted as a global force for good in marine conservation…We should make the most of that freedom.

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