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This article was published prior to the publication of the post-Brexit agreement between the UK and EU which covers the relationship between the UK and EU following the end of the implementation period (commonly referred to as the “transition period”) created by the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, and should be read in that context. For up-to-date commentary and information on our services, please see our Beyond Brexit page.
Following the UK's momentous decision on 23 June 2016 to leave the European Union, we take a look at how this is already affecting one of the UK's major trades - the fishing industry.
The fishing industry was overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit and so the news that we had decided to leave the European Union was consequently met with widespread jubilation. This stems from many factors, chief among them the immense hostility towards the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, as well as the policy of allowing non-UK vessels the right to fish in the UK's Exclusive Economic Zone. Given the industry's attitude towards these, it is not difficult to see why the opportunity for change that Brexit had presented was greeted with open arms, by a workforce that has felt largely hard done by from the outset of joining the EU.
However, the main narrative that has developed since June 24th is that Brexit is not only hard to define but will be even harder to negotiate. Under Article 50 the UK must technically withdraw within two years of serving notice, although some economists are now saying the actual process could take more like 10 years, while others have said that 20 years of negotiation is more realistic. The fishing trade, which has been among the most heavily legislated businesses during the UK's time in the EU, will be among the most difficult to agree, with some even saying that a complete overhaul of laws may be impossible and some regulations will need to be retained.
Arriving in amongst this, the House of Lords' EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, on 17 December 2016, published their own report into shared fishing stocks. The report details where this will be scope for opportunity in light of the present situation, although it also predicts difficult times ahead, especially concerning the forthcoming negotiations with our European neighbours over said quotas and fishing rights.
The Committee considered issues that would arise out of Brexit, such as: the opportunity to review fisheries management practices in the UK, the extent to which the UK could control foreign vessels’ fishing access to its waters and our obligation as a coastal state to manage shared fish sustainably in co-operation with adjacent states. It also reported concerns in other areas, for instance the importance of agreeing, and sharing, Total Allowable Catches for shared fish stocks, as well as the trade in fish stocks in the wider economy. The report finally highlighted the mounting concern that the Government may come under pressure to balance new quota shares and access arrangements against access to the Single Market. Ministers will ultimately need to weigh up the value of fisheries to the economy - £426m, a fraction of the UK's GDP as a whole - with its invaluable contribution to the economy and culture of coastal communities.
There are many in the industry who express concern that, in the Government's pursuit of an amicable agreement with our European neighbours, these measures may be used as a bargaining chip and no real change will be effected. Since many in this field have seen our membership of the European Union as the root of their problems, this news is certain to be met with animosity. Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Association, speaks for the wider industry with his protective position: "one of the UK’s fundamental assets are these exceptionally rich waters. It is not an act of aggression to wish to take up your rights and responsibilities under international law. It’s normal."
As with the questions regarding Brexit as a whole, the only thing that is clear at the moment is how little clarity there is. It is, ultimately, very early days and negotiations have not even begun yet. But the forecast already with the state of fishing at the moment is that, while the UK is set to take back control of its waters after several decades, there are still choppy waters ahead.