I was somewhat surprised that the government’s first major move in fisheries was to withdraw from a Convention that we ourselves created before we even joined the EU, namely the 1964 London Convention, which codified (i.e. recognised, but limited) most of the historic rights of other countries to fish in some 32 areas of the British coast.
Gove claims that leaving the London convention will allow UK fisheries to be a more competitive, more profitable, and more sustainable industry, allowing the UK to set its own quotas, adopt an environmentally wise policy, and enable coastal communities to thrive.
This sort of hyperbole was previously used by Gove to extol the supposed benefits of leaving the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and “reclaiming” a much wider 200 mile (EEZ) zone, not merely a 6 mile zone covered by the London Convention. By leaving the latter, only 10,000 extra tonnes will become available which will not make a huge impact on the 700,000+ tonnes the UK already catches in its own waters and those shared by with EU member states.
But Gove is no stranger to fishy hyperbole. During the referendum campaign, he claimed that his father’s business was destroyed by EU policies, but it later emerged that his father had actually decided to sell the business voluntarily due to a range of factors, including the Icelandic ‘cod wars'(non-EU), and competition with oil industry vessels for space.
The big problem for the government’s Brexit strategy as regards fishing (and is therefore looking to divert attention elsewhere) is that if it wants to seriously restrict access to UK waters, and leave the system of sharing out migratory fish stocks by joint agreement, then the EU is unlikely to grant access to its markets for our fish exports. Lest we forget, Britain exports 80% of the fish it catches, mostly to EU countries.
Does Gove’s diversionary tactic mean that he has accepted that he has to back down on the wilder claims he and other Brexiteers made in the referendum? Has Gove realised that, if you want fishing to be sustainable, there is no choice but to cooperate and reach agreement on stocks and quotas? Fish have a frustrating habit of swimming where they wish, with scant regard for borders, and given that around 100 migratory stocks swim between UK and EU waters, we will need to negotiate Total Allowable Catches with the EU and agree quotas. This is also required under international law (not least the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS).
Beyond sharing out stocks and fishing opportunities in a sustainable way, Britain must decide on what to do about the various pieces of legislation that we have agreed at EU level on fisheries. Much of this, especially since the reform of the CFP four years ago, is crucial for sustainability and environmental protection. Theresa May’s woefully vague plan for Brexit does at least include a commitment to transfer all existing EU regulations into UK law in the so-called Great Repeal Bill (which should be called the Cut and Paste Bill). For example, restrictions on fishing gear introduced by the EU have proved crucial in lessening the environmental damage of fishing, such as restricting the use of bottom trawlers on the sea bed to stop it being torn apart. Similarly, we must transpose all marine protected area legislation into UK law to avoid our coasts getting us the nickname of the ‘dirty man of Europe’ once more, as we were infamously known in the 1970s and 80s. The problem with the Great Repeal Bill is that the government wants to give itself the power to vary or repeal such legislation without parliamentary legislation. Does it actually intend to keep these laws in place or does it want to replace them? More than a year after the referendum, we are still waiting to hear.
One claim we are sure to hear more of: the need for a better deal for small scale fisheries and coastal communities. Yet, despite what Leavers claimed during the referendum campaign, this has always been within the UK government’s own powers. The UK’s quota is distributed internally by the UK government, and it has consistently supported big industry over the small scale. Leaving the EU will not change this, but we will lose access to the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, which helps coastal communities. The government has still not said whether it intends to replace this funding on a long term basis.
Beyond these issues, Britain’s fishing sector faces problems if the government carries through its intention to leave not just the EU as such, but the single market and customs union too. If our fishers and processors have to pay tariffs to sell into the EU market, they will lose sales. They will also face higher costs if we are no longer part of agreed single market rules on health, safety and consumer protection, as they will have to employ staff to cover administrative burdens such as ensuring each product entering the EU has a DEFRA approved health certificate. Not to mention the possibility that they may need to employ veterinary officers on site to sign every dispatch. These self inflicted wounds have yet to be addressed by the government.
These are the real problems. It is very clear to anyone who has more than a superficial understanding of this sector – and Michael Gove’s contempt for experts indicates that he is unlikely to be among this number – that the key to our fishing sector is in the detail of the above mentioned issues. Leaving the London Convention will change very little.
Once again, we see symbolic posturing masquerading as fisheries policy; as useless as Farage’s farcical flotilla on the Thames last summer.