Only national control can rebuild the British fishing industry

Only national control can rebuild the British fishing industry

Fishing was Ted Heath’s greatest failure when he took Britain into the Common Market. Before negotiating with the three most powerful fishing states – Britain, Norway and Denmark – the existing members saw their chance to take over more prolific waters and cobbled together a Common Fisheries Policy weeks before negotiations began to do just that.

At that stage the CFP was no more than the simple principle of equal access to a common resource. Norway of course refused to fall into the trap, but Euro Ted, desperate to get in, regarded fishing as a dangerous complication and didn’t try to change a policy which was still malleable, accepting it with only a ten-year derogation before European fleets could fish right up to British beaches. This ensured that Britain was unable to follow the world trend to 200-mile limits, ensuring that when it was forced out of Iceland the British fishing industry couldn’t be rebuilt within our own limits.

The English industry got only a three-mile exclusive limit, though Scotland got 12 miles for “North Britain” (which didn’t include Yorkshire). The result was the decimation of the English industry, damage to Scotland’s and a conservation crisis caused by over-fishing in the waters British vessels had traditionally fished. The lesson was clear: only the nation state can maintain conservation to hand sustainable stocks onto succeeding generations. Every nation outside the EU did that. We couldn’t. Common access meant paper quotas to allow everyone to grab their share. So EU vessels crowded in, their fleets rebuilt and modernised with EU money not available in Britain because the government refused to put up the match funding.

It’s no wonder that the fishing ports and the shrunken industry rallied for Brexit and saw fishing as the forefront of the fight to take back control. No wonder either that the other EU members – including, even, the landlocked – will fight to stop us coming out of the CFP.

It will be difficult. British limits extend to 200 miles only to the north and west. Elsewhere the median line will be fifty miles or less. A bigger fishery protection effort will be necessary. Infringements will have to be dealt with, though there is no need for any cod war. Only national control can rebuild the fishing industry with all its ancillaries in marketing, engineering and processing. The argument that we will need mutual arrangements to encourage conservation is specious in the light of the damage the CFP has already done. So is the argument that our fish exports will be damaged. In fact they will increase if other countries aren’t able to catch our fish for us.

Greenland got a clean break on leaving the EU. It abolished all historic rights and now lives by fishing while giving controlled access to others. Or take the example of New Zealand which charges for access. With national waters we can stop French vessels destroying the pots of Yorkshire shell fishermen, stop French depredations on Sea Bass or Spanish registrations as British to catch our quota and ship it to Spain and the farce of one Dutch vessel taking a third of the British quota.

Once we manage our own sustainable quotas we can agree reciprocal catches with other fishing nations such as Norway and Iceland and even allow limited access to others paying charges. If the EU is prepared pay for EU vessels to loot the waters of poor developing countries, it can pay for access to ours.

Fishing may be a difficult case but it’s crucial and should not be sacrificed again for other objectives. It’s the worst EU failure and offers the best prospect of benefits if we take back control. The Government may want to delay the issue or fudge it, but it should establish the principle of national control first then decide the details later. Brexit won’t be real without our own waters to manage.

Photocredit: 昶廷 林