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John Ashworth has worked in the fishing industry since the 1960s. He ran the Save Britain’s Fish campaign for over a decade, and is a former Conservative Constituency Chairman.

On 26th March, our Prime Minister gave a statement to the House of Commons concerning the previous weeks European Council meeting, in which she stated:

‘Although I recognise that not everyone will welcome the continuation of current trading terms for another 21 months, such an implementation period has been widely welcomed by British business because it is necessary if we are to minimise uncertainty and deliver a smooth and successful Brexit.’

No doubt Theresa May was referring to the fishing industry, as strong representation had been made by fishermen as to why this proposed period of time was so damaging.

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So why are fisherman unhappy about the 21-month implementation period?

Up until March of this year, all key Government players in Brexit and fisheries were saying we were coming out of the Common Fisheries Policy at 11pm on 29th March 2019, and that the UK would be in full control. The coastal communities were ecstatic and, after years of neglect, had at long last hope for the future.

But on 19th March, with the release of the draft withdrawal agreement, the points agreed highlighted in green shown by Michel Barnier said we would not take back control of our waters until 1st January 2021. One can only presume that in order to secure a 21-month deal, fishing had been sacrificed. Now we get the assurance that one just has to wait 21 months and the prize awaits, but will it? Coastal communities are wary – having given way so easily now, surely a trade deal will be bartered for fishing access in UK waters, as the European Parliament has suggested.

It is a simple fact that faith and trust have gone. These communities have been bitten more than once.

The fisheries section of the draft withdrawal agreement comes under article 125, in four sections. At a first casual glance it looks straightforward, until you study every word, when it becomes apparent that power and control rests with the Commission to do what they want.

Bearing in mind the EU treaties and regulations cease to apply after 29th March 2019, the UK loses the protection of the derogation giving us exclusive rights in our six- and 12-nautical-mile zones. So from the low water mark out to the 200-nautical-mile/median line zone would all be under EU jurisdiction.

EU fishermen, free of previous zonal conditions of access would love to come inshore and take our non-quota species such as squid and cuttlefish. Why buy it from the British when you can catch it yourself? These inshore grounds keep our fleet viable; take them away and they will go bankrupt. The Government will deny this because of the Withdrawal Bill bringing the EU acquis into domestic legislation, claiming the rules and laws are the same before and after Brexit. This is a serious mistake – yes, the rules can be the same, but certainly the laws are not.

The one saviour could be the two-year notice given on 3rd July 2017 to leave the 1964 London Fisheries Convention. If this is upheld, it will mean no EU vessel can come inside our 12-nautical-mile zone, but if surrendered will result in a further decimation of our fleet. That will be a severe test for the Government.

Another problem commencing on 1st January 2019 is the implementation of the final stages of the discard ban. Discarding is a very serious problem, but the present system is not the way to solve it. What will happen is if you have quota for several species, and as soon as you have caught the lowest one, you have to stop fishing for the rest of the year, even though you have plenty of quota left on other species. If enforced, the Government’s own department estimates 60 per cent of our vessels will go out of business. The Government is determined to see the discard ban fulfilled.

Come the end of 2020 we could see a large reduction in UK catching capacity, and if we do take back control of our waters then it means by international law we are in serious trouble, because under Article 62 of UNCLOS 3, if a coastal state has not enough catching capacity, the excess you can’t catch goes to your neighbour – the EU.

Brexit could give us the potential to rejuvenate our coastal communities. We could become world leaders in marine management, as we should be, because around the British Isles is the finest marine resource of anywhere in the world, which belongs to the British people. To meekly follow the Common Fisheries Policy management, which is politically driven, would be a disgrace, when government has been handed on a plate a new fisheries plan that would create far superior scientific data. Bring scientists, fishery officers, and fishermen together to work with each other, rather than in conflict as at present. All we ask is to trial this new system. Alas, someone is blocking it.

Extending taking back control by nearly two years could well result in not having enough people around to rebuild, resulting in no improvement for coastal continuities and what is left of the UK Industry belonging to large companies, the very opposite of what we wanted.

It would be wrong to blame the EU for this mess. You have to admire them for standing up for their industries. We should be doing the same, but – come the trade deal – the EU will demand the same again.

184 comments for: John Ashworth: The Government must not betray fishermen and coastal communities in the Brexit talks

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