Sir Barney White-Spunner is Advisory Board Chairman for UK Fisheries.
There is some debate as to who first suggested that truth was ‘the first casualty of war,’ but one thing that is certain is that a rounded version of the truth easily becomes collateral damage in electioneering. For example, the 2019 general campaign has yet to see a meaningful examination of fisheries policy post-Brexit, although it has not been difficult to find soundbites.
Readers of ConservativeHome will probably be aware of the Conservatives’ manifesto promise to ‘take back control of our waters’ on leaving the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and that is something that would be widely welcomed across the industry.
While short on detail, this does at least offer something like a vision, which is more than anything Labour has pledged (the Opposition manifesto vaguely offers ‘new legislation to ensure support and certainty for … our fishing industry’). But while the Conservatives pledge ‘a post-Brexit deal for Scottish fishing’ there is no specific mention of the industry in England or the sector in which UK Fisheries operates – distant-waters fishing from the English East Coast.
This is a pity. While we all understand that policies and arrangements surrounding such a complex industry as fishing are difficult to encapsulate in manifesto soundbites, few industries resonate more with the British public. Fishing may not be the force it once was, but many local communities are still culturally and financially dependent on the vessels of all sizes that, among other things, provide our national dish and bring hundreds of jobs to the key marginal constituencies of Humberside and elsewhere.
Our new representatives in Westminster and our public servants in Whitehall will need to act quickly and decisively on fishing. In December, they will immediately find themselves confronted with – and perhaps bewildered by – the sheer complexity of the UK fishing sector and its close interdependence with the European Union and coastal states around the North Sea. In fact, under the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, long-term decisions on fishing will have to be made to an even tighter timetable than December 31st, 2020. The Political Declaration specifies that a UK–EU Fisheries Agreement covering access to waters and quota shares must be struck by July 1st of next year.
But there is every reason for optimism, as long as the new government understands there is a simple and good outcome easily within its grasp.
Beyond the CFP
When the UK leaves the EU and is no longer bound by the Common Fisheries Policy, our industry undoubtedly stands to gain. The government will have the freedom to allocate quotas for UK waters as it sees fit, but there is still likely to be some kind of trade and access relationship with the EU, as well as with states currently known as ‘third countries’ – not least Norway, the Faeroes and Greenland.
At UK Fisheries, we are of course particularly concerned with the fortunes of the English distant-waters fishing fleet, which for centuries has operated in the rich but dangerous fishing grounds of the Barents and Greenland Seas.
But we are also mindful of Britain’s huge fleet of mostly small boats catching high-value shellfish around our shoreline. Such fishermen depend for their livelihood on fast, tariff- and check-free exports of their product to the EU, while the distant-waters fleet, landing its fish at British ports for the British market, relies on long-standing deals with Norway, Greenland and the Faroe Islands that grant access to their waters.
Neither of these groups will benefit from increased quotas for UK boats fishing in British waters (the distant-waters fleet because it does not fish in UK waters, the shellfish boats because their catch is usually not subject to quotas), but both could be faced with significant challenges if any post-Brexit regime does not take their needs into account. And so even though we fish in different places for different products for different markets, we have common cause.
The Department for International Trade and Defra have over the past few months shown they are able to strike sensible agreements with third countries. For example, the fisheries and trade agreements signed with Norway and the Faroe Islands would, in the event of a No Deal Brexit on October 31st, have allowed UK Fisheries’ state-of-the-art trawler Kirkella to keep operating until the end of 2019.
The same focus and flexibility are required from both Departments of State for the negotiation of new, permanent, bi-lateral deals which will grant our partners continued access to the UK market for selling fish, and maintain the fishing opportunities now enjoyed by UK vessels operating sustainably in and around the Barents Sea.
It is now absolutely vital that every effort is made to lock in these temporary arrangements, so that an unintended No Deal Brexit does not bring a sudden and permanent end to distant-waters fishing from the East Coast of England. For that is what is at stake.
There is of course nothing wrong with Michael Gove asserting that the UK will have the final say over who came into UK waters and on what terms after leaving the EU, as he did on the campaign trail this week. But our future EU partners do see a connection between trade with their markets and access to UK waters, and we, like they, will have to show some degree of flexibility if we are to protect all of our industry.
This could allow an easy win for whichever political party holds sway in Westminster after the election, and UK Fisheries will over the coming weeks be working its hardest to ensure that all candidates understand and support our message.
Fishing is a part of our local heritage. It can and will have a bright future if all our fishermen and women are allowed to get on with what they do best – bringing home British fish in a sustainable way. If our new representatives in Westminster fully understand this, then we need have no fear for the future of our industry.