The Blame Game

18th February 2021 in Brexit, Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

The Herald has published a partial version of the NFFO’s response to ex-MEP Struan Stevenson’s criticisms of the fishing industry. Below we publish the full version.

The Blame Game

In his article Britain’s Fishermen are stranded on the Brexit Rocks but who’s fault is it? (The Herald 22nd January) Struan Stevenson manages to emerge as both an apologist for the Common Fisheries Policy and a defender of Boris Johnson's claim to have delivered the UK fishing industry from the clutches of the CFP.

Perhaps he is right, and the fishing industry was naïve to believe that Brexit could mean a definitive break with the Common Fisheries Policy. In our defence, the UK fishing industry was given every reason to understand, from multiple statements by the Prime Minister and senior members of the Cabinet, as well as Chief Negotiator David Frost, that that this Government considered fishing rights to be a matter of sovereignty and therefore a matter of principle. That proved not to be the case.

Our grievance - spelt out in our letter to the PM - is not just that, when push came to shove, the Government prioritised a trade deal. Given the jobs and businesses that hung in the balance that was perhaps to be expected. What really stung was that the Prime Minister made the dishonest claim that the UK had achieved its negotiating objectives on fishing. The plain truth is that it failed dismally. There are exact parallels between what Boris Johnson did on Christmas Eve with what Ted Heath did to fishing in 1973 – both sacrificed the industry for other national objectives.

Whatever fringe groups may have suggested, the two UK fishing federations at no point argued that EU fleets should be permanently excluded from UK waters. Our argument was that access should be negotiated annually and that quotas should broadly reflect the resources located within UK waters – the normal relationship between two coastal states which share fish stocks.

Compare Norway

The EU’s relationship with the UK on fishing rights – especially in relation to access and quota shares – is now in stark contrast with its relationship with Norway. Both the UK and Norway are independent coastal states under international law – but the provisions of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, mean that the UK has ceded concessions that entirely undercut that legal status. What happens at the end of five and a half years is an open question, but we fear that the EU has powerful trade levers to ensure that the UK will remain trapped in a neo-colonial relationship so far as fishing rights are concerned. It feels like we are caught in a never-ending Groundhog Day, or in Hotel California - you can check-out, but you can never leave.

The EU’s Michel Barnier has shrugged at the problems experienced by UK fish and shellfish exporters confronted by new border controls. It is, he says, the normal trading relationship between the EU and a third country and the UK voted to leave the EU. Border delays are an automatic consequence of that decision. The exact opposite, however, is true on fishing – the UK is now a third country and holds coastal state rights under UN law of the sea – but is denied exercise of those rights by big-power politics. The EU has succeeded in having it both ways.

Freedom of Movement

Freedom of movement of labour and capital has left a complex residue. Scotland has not been immune to the sale of quota and fishing vessel licences to non-UK interests, but Struan Stevenson is right to say that this proceeded much further in England and Wales. This won’t be easily altered unless the Government pays compensation because the courts have determined that quasi-property rights have been established. In any event, quota holdings purchased by non-UK interests are concentrated in a relatively small group of species. It is just ignorant therefore to suggest that any adjustments in favour of the UK’s quota shares would be swallowed by foreigners. The UK fleets remain starved of quota because the lion’s share continues to go to the EU. Stevenson misrepresents the change to quota shares. He suggests that the EU has relinquished 25% of its quota holdings. The actual figure is 25% of the value of the fish caught in UK waters – a very much smaller number amounting to a marginal shift and nowhere close to the UK’s zonal attachment rights. The UK’s share of Eastern Channel cod remains 9%; the French share remains at 84%.

To complete the picture, on the labour side of the free movement equation, the engagement of migrant labour, mainly from the Philippines, has proceeded much further in Scotland and Northern Ireland than in England or Wales. This raises complex issues that must be handled sensitively for the boats and crews involved.

It shouldn’t be missed that, over 30 years, free movement and market-based policies within the UK also led to a huge drift of quota and licenced fishing capacity northwards from England to Scotland, especially in critical stocks like North Sea cod.

Is anything better?

Despite the asymmetric and exploitative relationship that the Government has tied us back into, there is some scope for improvement, beginning with the (very) modest quota increases in the UK’s quota shares over the next five years. These increases are not distributed evenly across UK fisheries or sectors. The Secretary of State could ensure that these are allocated on the basis of need, rather than as a windfall to those who already hold substantial amounts of quota. Ensuring that no fleet segment is left worse off by the Brexit debacle should be a priority.

Secondly, even with one hand tied, the UK’s departure from the Common Fisheries Policy, does at least give us regulatory autonomy over the rules that apply in UK waters and is an important break with the dismal CFP. The Fisheries Act 2020 is shaped around the contours of the devolution settlement but does provides a useful framework for the introduction and trial of some imaginative fisheries management policies, particularly in relation to sustainable fisheries management plans and co-management, where fisheries managers, fisheries scientists and the fishing industry work collaboratively towards shared objectives.

Oblique Attack

We can’t help noticing that Struan Stevenson makes his criticism of the Scottish fishing industry obliquely – by attacking the English based NFFO, although the NFFO and Scottish Fishermen’s Federation held identical positions on the UK’s future as an independent coastal state and campaigned together to secure it. Doubtless that is none-too-subtle positioning ahead of the Scottish elections in May.