As I write, we are eight weeks past Fish Dependence Day.

This is a date calculated by the New Economics Foundation to represent the start of the annual period during which the UK is dependent for its fish supplies on other countries. This year it was September 6.

Whose fault is this shocking state of affairs? Brexiters have no doubt it’s the EU’s. Britain must take back control of its fish stocks, bellowed Nigel Farage from his boat, as he led Fishing for Leave’s flotilla up the Thames in June 2016. Through his loud-hailer, he informed Bob Geldof that fishing communities were being destroyed by the EU’s fisheries policy.

Geldof, leading the less flamboyant counter-flotilla, called Farage (correctly) a fraud and charged that, when he was on the European Parliament’s Fishing Committee, Farage had attended precisely one meeting out of 43.

A factual rebuttal of Farage’s claim was left to Greenpeace’s director, John Sauven. “The distribution of fishing rights within the UK’s fleet is entirely the responsibility of the UK’s fisheries minister,” he stated. He said the problem lay with the concentration of the UK’s fishing quotas in the hands of a few large operators, some of whom, he said, were in Farage’s flotilla.

This hit an important nail squarely on the head. Fisheries account for less than 1% of the country’s GDP, but the emotional significance of the Hull trawler, the Grimsby fishing smack, the Scottish herring boat, coming in at dawn is huge. We are a maritime nation and fishing is a powerful symbol in our iconography.

There is hypocrisy in this because, as fishermen and fisherwomen would point out, we don’t give them a second thought when we complain about the price of plaice. However, that doesn’t mean the emotion isn’t real. It is a sentiment deeply woven into the Union flag, and it was what Farage appealed to.

As so often, he knew what he was doing.

And, as so often, what he was doing was deeply dishonest.

It was easy to do because fishing has been a source of trouble ever since Britain joined what was then the EEC.  The EEC did not act from the highest motives: it rushed a draft of the Common Fisheries Policy through the Council of Ministers in October 1970 just as the UK, Ireland, Norway and Denmark began negotiations for entry.

“This robbed the four, all big fishing nations with an 80 per cent share of western Europe’s coastal waters, of any say in framing a policy where their legitimate interests far outweighed those of the Six. The basic principle of the CFP – that fishing vessels of all member states could fish in each other’s coastal waters ‘up to the beaches’ – would have been rejected by the four had they been in on the negotiations. As it was, they were presented with a fait accompli” (Routledge Guide to the European Union, p. 176).

Norway refused the terms in a referendum in 1972. The UK, Ireland and Denmark reluctantly accepted. Since then the CFP has been revised and reformed several times, most recently in 2014, but its main provisions still are that the Union’s waters are open to all EU fishermen within a 200-mile limit from the Atlantic coasts, or up to a median line between countries, with the exception of a 12-mile inshore zone reserved for their own fleets.

The EU fixes “total allowable catches” at an annual meeting of the Council of Ministers. These are intended to prevent overfishing. The Union’s primary goal remains “by setting quotas, to redress the effect of long-standing overfishing and stock depletion, thereby ensuring sustainable fisheries and guaranteeing incomes and stable jobs for fishermen” (Routledge Guide).

Most UK fishing communities would say that the last of those goals, guaranteeing incomes and stable jobs for fishermen, is exactly what the EU has failed to do. A poll before the 2016 referendum showed that 92% of fishers backed the Leave campaign, “largely because of the perceived failures of the Common Fisheries Policy and under-allocation of fish quotas to the UK.” 1

They have a good case, on the face of it. There has been a collapse of the fishing industry and its communities that invites comparison with the destruction of the mining industry under Margaret Thatcher. Where there were once a hundred boats in the harbour, there are now twenty. Where there were twenty, there are none. The young people leave, the old are bitter. They ask why this has happened to them.

It’s the fault of Brussels, the British government has always replied, if it bothered to reply at all.

But John Sauven was quite right in saying it is London, not Brussels, that allocates fishing quotas within the UK. The EU sets the tonnage of specific fish that can be caught in EU waters, and divides this among member states. The quota each country receives is based largely on how much it fished in the specified areas before the CFP came into effect. This disadvantages the UK, which in the 1970s fished extensively in Icelandic waters, from which it is now barred.

Once the UK’s total has been awarded, it is up to the British government to allocate it to the national fishing fleet. British governments have a prejudice against small operators. Boats under 10 metres long make up the great majority of the UK fishing fleet, but receive a tiny fraction of the available quota. There was media outrage three years ago over the discovery that a giant Dutch vessel, the Cornelis Vrolijk, was taking roughly a quarter of the total UK catch; operating out of  Hull, it flew the British flag, but landed its entire catch in Holland.

“This system doesn’t work in favour of local, small-scale fisheries and the communities that rely on them,” says the New Economics Foundation.2  “Nor does it support sustainable, less profitable fishing techniques.”

The word “sustainable” is crucial here, and “profitable” is relative.

In 2012 the World Wildlife Fund estimated the European fishing fleets to be two to three times the size needed to catch the available fish. There is still huge overcapacity. Stocks are overfished: by everyone. Four out of every ten fish species have been exploited beyond safe biological limits. The UK plays its part: it comes sixth in the over-fishing league and sets quotas an average of 21% above scientific advice.

The WWF estimated that if European fish stocks were allowed to recover, the fisheries dependent on them could be five times more profitable. The figures quoted for the UK by the New Economics Foundation are startling: an increase in landings of 442,000 tonnes, 392 million euros in value and 6,600 new jobs. This would make the UK self-sufficient in fish and a net fish exporter.

The EU wants fishing in its waters to be sustainable by 2020. There has been an improvement; over the past ten years, unsustainability has dropped from 90% to 60%. Some fish stocks, for instance North Sea cod, are regenerating.  The 2014 reform of the CFP will ban discarding of fish. But the drop in unsustainability won’t hit the 2020 target, and the international Our Fish campaign claims that the whole industry needs to be restructured to ensure the recovery of stocks and long-term viability.

What effect would Brexit have on all this? Not as much as Leavers think.

Britain would become an independent coastal state under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This does not mean we could do what we like. Under this Convention and the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, the UK would have to co-operate with neighbouring states in sustainable management of shared and trans-boundary fish stocks. (Fish move around. Nobody owns them. Nations have to co-operate.) We would need to negotiate membership with the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission. The waters in the region of the Irish border would need to be fished with particular care. Nor would we have the fish all to ourselves. Several EU countries have been fishing in what will become UK waters for centuries, and Denmark and others are arguing that under UNCLOS they will still have the right to do so.

Might they? The UK has a strong legal case, but enforcing it could lose us friends who can’t be spared. In February a leaked memo from the European Parliament’s committee on fisheries insisted that the granting of UK access to the EU domestic market after Brexit “should be conditional on continued EU access to UK waters.”

We need that market: we export most of the fish we catch, and the EU takes two-thirds of it. We have a fish-processing industry, dependent on EU trade, that is even more important, economically and socially, than the fishing itself. What are we prepared to exchange for access?

And then there’s the really big thing. The EU, for all its failures, is at least working towards sustainability. What guarantees are there that a post-Brexit UK government would do likewise?

Brexit could in theory be an opportunity for much-needed restructuring. It’s a question of whose hands Brexit is in. The present crew are wreckers. Corporate-loving, bent on deregulation, they are the last people to be entrusted with a fragile and complex ecosystem. Nor does any British government have a good record on environmental pollution.

In the end it is not the EU, and not the British government, that will set the quotas we can catch. It is the sea.

If we have any sense at all, we will look after it.


1 Economic and Social Research Council, Post-Brexit Policy in the UK: Fisheries, Seafood and the Marine Environment, 2017. 

2 New Economics Foundation, A Fair Fishing Deal for the UK,  2017.


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