Brexit - Marine Sector

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 last Thursday's momentous decision by the UK to exit the European Union, many commentators across several sectors have been trying to summarise its potential consequences for the economy and the country as a whole. For Eric McLeod, director of Ashfords' client Viviers UK, however, his immediate feelings can be summed up in a single word: "ecstatic."

Viviers UK is a wholesale and retail fish merchant that has been at the heart of the fishing industry on the Solent for more than three decades, employing its fleet of vessels to haul its produce into Portsmouth fish market each day. But whereas Viviers began in an industry seen as thriving in the mid-eighties, the past few decades tell a different story - a decline of more than 75% of fishermen in this sector alone. Eric is therefore "extremely pleased" as, having chosen as a nation to leave, he believes the industry can now take control and make its own rules again. This includes employing some of the styles of fishing that had been the subject of increasingly tight EU regulation. It is thought that a period of potential relaxation of these rules should have the effect of allowing the industry to grow again to its former numbers.

Eric is also keen for the UK to be seen to stand on its own again and, as for concerns about the initial impact of leaving the EU has had on the economy, he is again buoyant: "let's have this conversation in six months' time."

Viviers' anxieties about the way the fishing industry had been going, together with optimism for the future now that we have left, is echoed across the fishing industry as a whole. This was encapsulated by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations ("NFFO") which, on the day of the announcement to leave, stated:

"It is not difficult to understand the strong anti-EU sentiments within the UK fishing industry. The European Commission has too often behaved with arrogance, and the EU Parliament with ignorance, to escape their share of the blame."

It is also notable that George Eustice, the fisheries minister, was a vocal campaigner for Leave and expressed "delight" at the result.

Elsewhere in the marine industry, the decision is being treated with more caution. The marine energy sector, for example, is the beneficiary of a significant amount of EU funding, which is now in some doubt.

The shipping industry, which had already been experiencing a significant global slowdown before the referendum, is also looking at the decision with some wariness. Lloyd's List, the industry's renowned publication that covers all shipping matters, has run several stories on this issue already. As well as apprehension in the tankers and freight markets, it has reported warnings about the status of the Lloyd's Register, the maritime classification society based in London. The future of the UK's sanctions legislation, which played a key role in driving the EU's policy in this area, is also now in question.

In the wake of the decision on Friday it expressed in an editorial:

"Shipping’s status as an international, dollar-denominated sector has left few seriously questioning the industry’s ability to weather the economic storms blowing through the post-Brexit markets. But we are now at the beginning of an extended period of costly uncertainty that will cast a long shadow over business decisions for years to come."

The editorial also states: "an exodus of international banks and financial institutions from London is a real threat that could yet destabilise UK shipping PLC." Nevertheless, it also says: "it is, however, worth reminding ourselves that shipping is a resilient industry with an inherent ability to find opportunity in any period of volatility."

This is something that most if not all across the marine sector would agree with in the very early days of this decision. As many have commented, the effects on global markets and also our industry at home cannot yet be known or properly predicted. Lloyd's List's final message to the marine sector both in the UK and worldwide is therefore one that is simple and straightforward: "keep calm and carry on."

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