Throughout the fishing industry, there is talk of “disillusionment, betrayal and fury” and the impression that despite all the assurances the UK government caved in on fish.
As an indication of the likely improvement in the UK share of certain key fish stocks, the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations pointed out that after a five-year adjustment period the UK’s share of English Channel cod will have increased from 9.3 per cent to 10.2 per cent.
Andrew Oliver, one of the most experienced fisheries lawyers in the UK, summed it up on LinkedIn: “My ‘flabbergasted’ moment was learning the EU vessels will still be able to fish inside the UK’s 12 mile territorial limit. Yes, they would always be allowed inside the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone but after all the huff and puff of sovereignty and claiming back our waters I did think UK territorial waters would be sacrosanct even if for political reasons to soften the pill elsewhere.
“My advice to Boris. Don’t visit any fishing ports unless you like swimming!”
It is clear that access to within six miles of the UK coast will continue for foreign vessels in the south east, south, south west, Bristol Channel and south Wales – to the probable detriment of the inshore fleet.
In return for the manyfold concessions on foreign access to quotas in UK waters, British vessels get tariff-free trade with the Continent, but with more paperwork.
On the plus side, access to Jersey, Guernsey and Isle of Man for French vessels will be under new arrangements where these Channel Islands will be able to licence vessels that fish in their waters. This means an end to the Bay of Granville treaty which allowed France to licence vessels that fished in Jersey waters – which is probably an improvement.
There will be another probable improvement in the clarity of the rules with all foreign vessels needing to have UK licences to fish in the UK and being subject to UK environmental laws – if the Marine Management Organisation has the capacity to enforce them.
The agreement reads like the status quo, as well as perpetuating it in many ways. It is like the text of the Common Fisheries Policy. While some North Sea stocks have been re-allocated to the UK fleet, it is gradual and hard to spot.
There is a straightforward non-discrimination measure, subject to independent arbitration. That is going to make it hard for the UK to introduce British-only crew levels on boats fishing in UK waters. That’s because the British crew levels on the British industrial fleet are low.
If the terms of the agreement are breached, there is a quick compensation system in place, that allows for tariffs to be introduced on a range of goods, not just fish. The constant threat of arbitration will make it difficult for ministers to make far-sighted decisions, say the experts.
From the point of view of sustainability, objectives carried over from the Common Fisheries Policy of avoiding and reducing bycatch, fishing no more than maximum sustainable yield and observing the principles of the UN Law of the Sea are all in there. So there is no backsliding there, except that these measures are currently not legally enforceable within the EU.
It is also clear that the agreement reasserts the primacy of environmental law over fisheries law which has so often trumped it while the UK was in the EU. “Taking due account of and minimising harmful impacts of fishing on the marine ecosystem and taking due account of the need to preserve marine biological diversity” is permitted. So non-discriminatory measures which crack down on fleets fishing in damaging ways incompatible with nature protection should still be allowed – so the Government’s intention of tightening the rules in marine protected areas should still be possible.
In conclusion, the big improvement in share of the catch that fishing communities had hoped for is not there, and they are right to be dismayed, given the what they were promised, but there could be incremental improvements in the management of UK waters over time, provided these are not discriminatory to foreign fleets.