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From any perspective, it is clear that the outcome of the EU referendum marks a seismic change for the fishing industry. What that change actually will mean in practice is less easy to predict. On all fronts, including fishing politics, we are entering uncharted territory and turbulent waters, with challenges and perhaps also opportunities.
Two things can be said with certainty:
1. At this stage there are more questions than answers
2. In this new world, fishermen will need a strong, cohesive, national organisation to defend their interests during the upcoming transition
It is not difficult to understand the strong anti-EU sentiments within the UK fishing industry. The European Commission has too often behaved with arrogance, and the EU Parliament with ignorance, to escape their share of the blame. To understand this, you need to go no further that the Commission’s proposed EU ban on small-scale drift nets – to solve an enforcement problem in Italy but which if adopted would have extinguished many sustainable, viable small-scale fisheries in the UK. This is but one example which just illustrates the roots of the frustration that has built over many years.
Promises have been made and expectations raised during the referendum campaign and it is now time to examine if and how they can be delivered. Unfortunately perhaps, the UK’s geo-political position means that it is not politically or legally possible just to ring-fence most of our fish resources in the way for example that Iceland can. The reality is that most of our stocks are shared with other countries to some degree or other.
We can certainly seek to renegotiate quota shares as well as access arrangement but it is realistic to expect that there will be a price of some sort. Who will pay that price is a critical question.
Some of the key questions in an immediate post-referendum context are:
1. What will the new bilateral (or trilateral) arrangements be for managing shared stocks? Will the fishing industry be part of the UK negotiating team?
2. What assurance will there be that fishing priorities will not be traded away against non-fishing priorities?
3. Will there be new access arrangements in UK waters? Will all foreign vessels be excluded from UK waters? If not, what conditions will apply if they are allowed in?
4. What reciprocal access arrangements will there be for our vessels to fish in the waters of other member states? What conditions will apply?
5. What quota share arrangements will apply? Will it be possible to negotiate better UK quota shares?
6. What market access arrangements will exist: to the EU single market and for external fish products in the UK? What tariffs will apply?
7. What status will domestic quota management arrangements have post Brexit? Will there be a grab for quota held by non-UK nationals? EU law will no longer apply but what will English law say?
8. What will the general economic climate be post Brexit and how will that impact on fishing? Where will the new equilibrium be?
9. What will the political context be, not least where power is currently devolved? Will there be a second referendum in Scotland?
10. Who will be doing the negotiating on behalf of the UK? DEFRA has reduced its team dramatically in recent months.
11. What say will the fishing industry have in shaping the new arrangements?
12. How will the transition to the new arrangements be managed?
Our Fisheries Minister, in campaigning for Leave, made a number of commitments including on the UK’s quota shares and access arrangements. With the referendum outcome, there will now be heavy pressure on him to demonstrate that there was more to those promises than pre-referendum sweet talk.
The one key lesson that we have all learnt from the CFP is that fisheries management is too important to be left to the technocrats. There are no technocratic solutions. Fisheries stakeholders, and principally fishermen and their organisations must be at the heart of the design and implementation of management arrangements. It is important that the politicians bear this in mind.
Whatever lies ahead, it will be vital for the industry to speak with one clear loud voice. History, not least the history of the CFP, demonstrates that divisions equals weakness. It is for that reason that the NFFO Executive, when it meets on 12th July, will be taking stock of the Referendum outcome and framing our policy accordingly.