Brexit better for fisheries is pure fantasy

Posted on 15/06/16 by Heather Hamilton

Heather Hamilton, Lawyer, Biodiversity for ClientEarth, explains why she thinks British fishermen are better off inside the EU.

If you believe the Brexiteers, large parts of the fishing industry support the UK’s exit from the EU, seemingly on the basis that this would mean that we are no longer subject to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). However, the arguments that they present are out of sync with the UK’s past actions and the current state of fisheries. In fact, to exit the EU would be to place the marine environment, fish stocks, and those fishers relying on them, in jeopardy.

Since 2002, the CFP has, despite some difficulties, led to increased stock levels – the ongoing recovery of North Sea cod being a well-known example. Such successes should increase following the CFP's ground-breaking reform in 2013, a reform process that responded to past criticism and adapted the rules accordingly. Importantly for the Brexit debate, the UK had a notably strong influence in the reform process. Sustainable catch levels (maximum sustainable yield) are now a legal requirement, allowing for the recovery of fish stocks and the healthy oceans and healthy fishing industry that follows. This will be at risk if the UK leaves the EU and the CFP.

Cries of 'European bureaucracy' have been substantially addressed through greater decentralisation in the reformed CFP. This “regionalisation" of decision-making it provides for allows for decisions to be taken at a more local level. Countries with fishing interests in the different sea areas can now work together, as part of regional groups, to agree management and conservation measures. ClientEarth is experiencing this process first-hand through its membership of the North Sea and North Western Waters Advisory Councils. These bodies feed advice into the regional groups as they make their decisions. They produce this advice through a process that brings together both fishing industry and other interest groups, including environmental NGOs – a process that continues to improve as time goes on.

The counter-argument of Brexit supporters would seem to be 'yes, but we can do this more effectively on our own'. Some appear to believe that were we to leave the EU, we could keep neighbouring countries out of our waters. Quite apart from ignoring historic agreements, this would also be almost impossible to enforce. It would likely result in the UK having its access to waters and markets in these countries cut off. So, in reality, what will be necessary is negotiating a whole new set of fishing rights with these countries.

But, as a lawyer focused almost exclusively on the interpretation of fishing laws, I cannot understand how we would ever end up with a better deal. The process is likely to take years and to expect other Member States to welcome us to their waters and to their fish stocks with open arms is naive. After all, negotiations for previously shared assets rarely go smoothly in the aftermath of a break up.

Now, many Brexit supporters have been pointing to the agreements made with Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. However, it is important to remember that these countries are a lot more distanced from their neighbours than the UK. Somewhat confusingly, many Brexit supporters' arguments also appear to be based on the idea of 'UK fish'. For almost all species around the UK's coasts, this is a false notion, as usefully highlighted by the Marine Conservation Society. Fish move, irrespective of political boundaries. This is particularly true for some of the UK's most lucrative fisheries, such as those for mackerel, herring and cod.

If George Eustice, Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and a prominent 'Leave' supporter, is to be believed, a post-Brexit UK would still retain quotas, the discard ban and fishing limits set at sustainable levels.

At the same time, these seem to be some of the main reasons pro-Brexit fishing industry representatives are keen to leave the EU. And in fact, to base a Brexit argument on the EU's setting of quotas is misplaced, as highlighted in a recent and informative blog by Griffin Carpenter of the New Economics Foundation. Many of the industry's concerns about quota in fact stem from how the UK government itself distributes the quota available to it. If quotas are retained, there is no evidence that the UK fishing industry will, all of a sudden, be in a more favourable position. In fact there is potential for the opposite.

All of the Brexit rhetoric ignores the fact that the fish stocks, upon which the fishing industry relies themselves, rely on a healthy marine environment. The Habitats and Birds Directives which protect large parts of our oceans, including the habitats that support fish stocks and protect vulnerable species, would not continue to apply if the UK left the EU. The healthy marine environment the fishing industry relies on would be at risk. The Marine Strategy Framework Directive, requiring EU marine waters to reach 'good environmental status' by 2020, may also be in jeopardy, depending on negotiations post-Brexit.

How the UK government would address these issues if it left the EU is far from clear. But what is clear is that with all environmental legislation the UK has had the opportunity to go further and implement stronger environmental measures. However, in the past it overwhelmingly has not done so, and in a post-Brexit world the likelihood of this seems minimal.

So what now? At present we have a CFP that, if given the chance, can further, and dramatically, improve fish stocks. We have a CFP that provides the impetus to use more selective fishing techniques and to minimise the impacts of fishing on the marine environment. We have EU environmental legislation that bolsters this, providing high levels of protection for this environment. This benefits not only the fish stocks but also the fishing industry.

Alternatively we could just let all of this wash away, lose our seat at an important table and reduce our influence in fisheries decision-making. We could jeopardise both the marine environment and the fishing industry. It is not a difficult choice – ClientEarth chooses Europe, the CFP and a healthy marine environment.