Our fish are as sovereign as Gibraltar

Our fish are as sovereign as Gibraltar

No offence, but Gibraltar wouldn’t usually figure much in the minds of our fishermen. In the normal course of events, Spanish efforts to assert shared sovereignty over the Rock might as well be yet another “quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”, to use that unfortunate phrase.

It matters now, or at least the UK’s reaction to Spain’s rather clumsy initiative does. HMG’s forthright rejection of Brexit as an opportunity to concede sovereignty over part of its territory will come as very welcome news: if the UK is not prepared to discuss claims over an admittedly strategic 3 square miles bordering the Mediterranean, it should also rule out any discussion on claims over the almost 300,000 square miles constituting its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Astonishingly, the non-UK fishing fleets that currently account for 58% of EU landings of fish and shellfish from what will become the UK EEZ believe that they should continue to come and go as they please. Their representatives insist that the 650,000 tonnes they take from our waters each year is theirs by right, because the Common Fisheries Policy says so and they’ve been doing it for decades. It will be too painful to adjust, they say, neatly avoiding the fact of wholesale destruction of much of our own fishing industry over the same period. We need to keep our lights on, they argue – and Britain’s can jolly well stay off.

I suppose that arrogance needs to be breathtaking if it is to succeed. We are not simply talking about waters that international law will unreservedly pass to UK control upon Brexit and that happen to have a few fish in them. We are talking about some of the most productive and diverse fishing grounds anywhere, with every chance of them becoming more productive and valuable still as time goes on. All the available scientific advice points to increases in almost all stocks of our commercial fish over the past decade or more, and in some cases (cod, mackerel, hake, plaice) gains have been nothing short of dramatic. We not only have a large EEZ; it is a natural resource valuable enough to regenerate fishing communities right around our coast.

How much are we talking about? Well, if we take an extreme scenario in which we deny EU fishing vessels any access to our waters after Brexit, we could expect the UK catching sector’s direct output to increase 50% to £1.2 billion per year.

That would stimulate an expansion in overall UK economic output worth around £2.7 billion and create some 30,000 jobs. As much as the car industry in Northeast England, in other words, and including some of our more remote coastal and island communities.

I’m not ignoring markets: why on Earth would we do that? The EU is and will remain an important outlet for the fish we catch. But it is by no means the only one, and other markets show considerably more potential. Moreover, much of what we supply to the Continent cannot be sourced from anywhere else, and low or zero tariffs on fisheries products would make sense to both sides.

We want the best possible trade deals around the world and see no reason why we should focus exclusively on the developed economies with the most sluggish prospects of all. This is an ambitious industry driven by entrepreneurs, not some feeble basket case.

Importantly, we would not seek to deny access to other fishing fleets completely. We might want to permit a certain amount and for a limited period in return for access to EU waters or fairer shares of internationally agreed catch quotas, for example. But all that should wait until we are out of the EU and should not form part of the Brexit talks or settlement. Anything else, such as the concession of permanent or long-term access to our EEZ, would amount to giving away sovereignty in the same way as sacrificing Gibraltar. It would be as unacceptable and bizarre as giving away the Isle of Wight.

As with any other sovereign coastal State, access should not be a right but something that has to be negotiated from time to time in return for something else.

It will be our EEZ, not Europe’s, and the sooner that sinks in the better. It will be for the UK to control who can fish there, for what, how and for how long, and we’ll do a far better job of it than the CFP does. We’re talking about injecting serious jobs and investment into an industry that had been left for dead in so many parts of the country, and about managing fish stocks in a reactive and rational way.

Sustainability isn’t just about the environment, it’s about people too. Our fishing communities have paid a heavy price for EU membership over the years, and have just been handed the means to return to the prosperity and pride appropriate to this great maritime nation.

Let’s not trade it away. Better: let’s not trade it at all.