News: It's brilliant we're taking back our waters, but UK fishermen cannot thrive in isolationPublished in the Daily Telegraph on 10 February 2020 10 February 2020
The Government has promised to “take back control” of the UK’s waters. Its new Fisheries Bill was published last month and, unsurprisingly perhaps, access rights for EU vessels have already become a key point of disagreement between the EU and the UK in negotiations over a freetrade deal.
The Bill has been broadly welcomed by the industry, recognising as it does the complexity of fisheries management and the need to strike a balance between protecting our fish stocks and the social and economic importance of fishing. It seems to have taken in the lessons from the unwieldy Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), allowing fisheries to be managed at a more appropriate level.
The Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers, and her equivalents in the devolved administrations are to be granted wide powers to license both UK and foreign vessels, not only to manage quotas but with the aim of meeting new sustainability standards to protect the fish stocks in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This is to be celebrated, not least given concerns over sharply dwindling cod stocks in the North Sea.
The Government will also be able to achieve the right balance for fishing opportunities in our EEZ, which will become available to the UK once the CFP is consigned to history. These are changes that some British fishermen have desired since the Seventies. The reallocation of quotas enjoyed by EU vessels became something of a holy grail of the Brexit campaign.
But how will the Government deploy its new powers to ensure that everyone stands to gain (or is at least not worse off), not just those fortunate few who have the resources and financial firepower to bid for and exploit these new opportunities?
Like so many industries, fishing requires diversity and flexibility if it is to remain healthy. For example, while seafood processors may welcome the Government’s aim to land more fish in UK ports, they are also often reliant on imported fish and therefore have a vested interest in free trade.
If the UK dramatically cuts fishing rights for EU vessels, we may have no doubt that Brussels will fight fire with fire, imposing tariffs on imports from the UK that would cripple not only our fish processing industry but also the legions of small shellfish boats operating around our coastline. Inshore fleets, most of them family businesses, from the Western Isles and Shetland to Cornwall, are entirely reliant on a border with minimal tariffs and customs formalities so that their fresh lobsters and langoustines can arrive in restaurants in Paris, Berlin and Rome overnight.
Another example is my company, UK Fisheries, whose state-of-the-art trawler, Kirkella, does not operate in British waters at all, but catches cod and haddock in the Barents Sea, some five days’ steaming from her home port of Hull. Our continued success, and our ability to keep investing in communities in the North East, will depend on deals with our independent coastal neighbours, especially Norway, Greenland and the Faroes. The fishermen of the Humber have worked these distant waters for centuries, but any regime that does not allow reciprocity between our operations and those of our trading partners’ fleets in UK waters could bring that to an end, costing hundreds of local jobs in the process.
We must not let economic chauvinism cut off our collective nose to spite our face. We sometimes hear the bizarre claim that UK Fisheries, despite its deep roots in the North East, its predominantly British crews and the fact that all of its taxes are paid in the UK, is not really British because it has European shareholders. Well, without these investors there would in all likelihood be no distant-waters fishing from England. Attracting investment has been a central plank of UK policy for years.
The Fisheries Bill, with its focus on sustainability and fair allocations of opportunity, is a good starting point. But the next step must be to recognise and support all of the various fishing interests of the UK’s fishing sector, and we call on Boris Johnson, the Environment Secretary and the Fisheries Minister, George Eustice, to do exactly that.
Sir Barney White-Spunner is advisory board chairman at UK Fisheries