Despite its small size relative to the rest of the UK’s economy, fishing has dominated the Brexit debate. Many in the fishing industry have long been critical of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and opinion polling before the referendum shows that fishers intended to overwhelmingly vote Leave.
93% of them felt that leaving the EU would increase the fortunes of their industry, with 77% believing that Brexit would be an opportunity to catch more fish. In terms of trade, the perception in 2016 was that Brexit would have little impact on seafood trade, with 77% believing it would have no impact at all.
Since the referendum attention has increasingly focused on the complexity and diversity of the fishing industry and how this might be reflected in the eventual Brexit deal with the EU.
Given differences in the nature of fishing across the UK’s four nations, as well as wider debates about the ownership of fishing rights coupled with the UK government’s commitments to a ‘green Brexit’, reaching a deal which pleases everyone across fishing sectors is akin to finding the holy grail.
However, following the rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement by MPs in January, the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit has risen up the agenda. It has been highlighted that such a scenario will lead to short-term disruption and uncertainty.
Fishing wouldn’t be excluded from this. Indeed, the instability of no deal is acknowledged by some in the fishing industry itself. For example, Bertie Armstrong of the Scottish Fishermen’s Association suggests that, in the event of a no deal, UK vessels could just tie up and “temporarily fish less” until either governance and policy process catch up, or the UK and EU come to agreement at some point after 29 March.
But a closer inspection of what a no deal Brexit means for fishing suggest its impact goes beyond just sitting back and weathering the storm.
Firstly, even in a no deal scenario, the UK doesn’t get to go it alone in fisheries policy. The much banded about phrase ‘independent coastal state’ suggests the UK will have unprecedented freedom, but this comes with significant obligations. Many of the fish stocks in the UK’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) are shared.
This means the UK would still have to cooperate with the EU, and other coastal states (such as Norway and the Faroe Islands) in managing those stocks.
Also, given that the UK fishing fleet currently lacks the necessary capacity to catch all the fish in the UK EEZ, it would still likely have to permit foreign vessels access to catch any surplus fish stocks.
Secondly, there is the question of what fisheries policy would look like under no deal. The UK doesn’t have a new fisheries policy ready to go at the push of a button in the event of no deal: the fisheries white paper, published last year, contained many laudable aims but remained light on detail.
The Fisheries Bill only provides a legislative framework, and is still the subject of ongoing parliamentary deliberation.
One provision in the Withdrawal Agreement sees the UK effectively remaining in the CFP until the end of 2020. This faced much criticism at the time it was announced, but one of the reasons for this transition period is because it gives the UK and its devolved administrations time and space to develop their own approach to fisheries policy which meet the diverse needs of the fishing industry.
It also provides administrations across the UK, who already have devolved responsibility for fisheries management, to evaluate their capacities for engaging in more activities that were previously done for them via the CFP (including the potential to engage more in international negotiations).
A no deal Brexit means no transition arrangement, and this brings one of two risks. On the one hand the absence of any alternative approach to fisheries policy will simply mean the status quo will continue.
All the rules and regulations of the CFP will effectively remain in place (having been rolled over by the EU Withdrawal Act), while the government remains distracted dealing with the day-to-day fallout of a no deal.
On the other hand, the UK may choose to make sudden sweeping changes in order to signal its independent coastal state status. But this carries a risk too.
Such a rushed approach to policy design leaves little room for engagement with those working in the industry who will be affected, resulting in an approach which fails to work at sea.
This also comes at a time when trust between fishers and the government is low. Moreover, any sudden changes to access are likely to affect the UK’s standing on the international stage too.
The third significant issue with a no deal Brexit relates to trade. The majority of what the UK catches is exported, with most of that going to the EU. Tariffs aren’t the main concern though.
Rather it is non-tariff barriers, such as customs checks, which represent the largest risk, particularly as they threaten to cause delays to the transport of perishable seafood products.
The notion that vessels could simply “temporarily fish less” until such practicalities are sorted out will do little to reassure skippers of smaller vessels. They make up 78% of the UK’s fishing fleet, have tighter profit margins, and are most exposed to the effects of trade disruptions.
This is especially the case for shellfishing (the largest of the UK’s catching sectors), which a recent report commissioned by the Shellfish Association, National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation found would be significantly impacted under a no deal scenario.
On top of all of this are several more ‘practical’ issues. A recent report by the National Audit Office found Defra doesn’t yet have the necessary capacity to enforce fisheries regulations out at sea, and most fish will require catch certificates for importing and exporting.
This process may lead to delays and capacity challenges for authorities who will have to approve them, while also placing a significant administrative burden placed on skippers and seafood exporters. The necessary IT systems to facilitate this are still in development.
Finally, a no deal Brexit would mean that British fishing vessels would have no automatic right to access to the EEZs of other EU member states, where 94,000 tonnes of fish worth £88 million were caught in 2017.
For many fishers, EU membership and the CFP have been detrimental to the fortunes of their industry. Some of the issues raised in the debate (such as quota distribution across the UK’s fleet) have always been within the UK government’s gift to address.
Nevertheless, Brexit arguably presents an opportunity for the UK to rethink its approach to fisheries policy.
However, a no deal outcome does little to address the concerns that led many fishers and coastal communities to vote for Brexit in the first place and, if anything, it could make things worse.