The Fisheries Bill: An Industry Expects

This article was first published in the September issue of Marine & Maritime Gazette, and the original article can be found on page 16 here.

With the announcement of a Fisheries Bill as part the recent Queen's speech, the fishing industry is now preparing itself for how its wishes for withdrawal will finally be realised.

Part of the Queen's speech back in June included the announcement of a "Fisheries Bill". This was one of a raft of bills announced specifically relating to Brexit and its impact on other sectors as well, including trade and agriculture. The announcement was in tandem with the Repeal Bill, which will repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and convert all European Union legislation into UK law. The Conservatives have further announced on their own website that the Fisheries Bill would "enable the UK to exercise responsibility for access to fisheries and management of its waters."

So what do we know about the Fisheries Bill so far and its potential implications? It is well known that the fishing industry for decades had been dissatisfied with EU legislation. Not least of these is the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The CFP's aim was to ensure sustainability across member states by imposing catch limits and other quotas, though these came to be widely seen as unfair. Another common complaint about the CFP was the equal access given to all fishing fleets within UK waters as part of the EU's policy on competition and fair trade.

Given this highly controversial legislation, it came as no surprise to anyone that the industry voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU. Institutions such as the Scottish Fishermen's Federation have commented since the referendum that the automatic removal from the CFP framework upon our withdrawal is "very welcome indeed".

Upon the announcement of the referendum result in June 2016, Fisheries Minister George Eustice MP stated he was "delighted" with the decision, adding "once we leave we can do what we want." Mr Eustice has, however, sought to clarify his position since this announcement by stating that withdrawal "doesn’t mean no access" for EU vessels to enter UK waters in order to fish. But he has sought to emphasise that, although access to our waters will inevitably be part of any deal struck with the EU, the UK still ultimately retains control over who can enter its waters and how much fishing can be done by them.

Meanwhile, further developments since the referendum have included the UK giving formal notice of withdrawal from the 1964 London Fisheries Convention (the Convention). The Convention is specifically in relation to fishing rights across the coastal waters of Western Europe and includes co-signees Spain, France, Portugal and Denmark, alongside the UK. It had been feared in some quarters that withdrawal from the EU would make little difference in terms of fishing rights and quotas, so long as the UK remained a signatory to the Convention. Now that the UK has given its 2 years' notice for withdrawal specified under the Convention, it is now thought by those supporting the move that the UK shall have the necessary powers to take back control of its waters.

In spite of the above, there are fears that the UK may bargain away its fishing and quota rights in any event, despite the initial tough position. Fishing is one of the UK's oldest, most treasured and most vocal industries, yet it brings in an annual GDP contribution of just £426m, a small fraction of UK GDP as a whole. In light of this, there are those in the industry who wonder whether fishing rights will be seen as nothing more than a bargaining chip for those ministers and civil servants about to enter into fraught negotiations with EU members states looking to come away with the best possible deal.

The accuracy of these predictions cannot be stated with any certainty at this stage. What the industry does know is that the Fisheries Bill is not at present anything more than a public statement of intent to take back control of UK waters and fishing quotas. There are no specific details about how this will be done or deals that will be made. With the clock on the UK's EU withdrawal already having ticked along by several months, it is clear that such detail is now becoming vital. 

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