Theresa May’s Chequers plan will prove fatal to British fishing

Theresa May’s Chequers plan will prove fatal to British fishing

Since the United Kingdom joined the EEC in 1973, the effect on the British fishing industry and once vibrant rural coastal communities has been utterly shocking.

45 years ago, more than 20,000 British fishermen were landing a million tons of fish annually in UK ports. Today, landings have more than halved to around 400,000 tons per year, and the number of fisherman is down to 12,000. Where we were once a net exporter of fish, we now run an annual trade deficit close to a quarter of a million tons.

It is not surprising that the decline of British fishing has come to symbolise the worst, most destructive consequences of our EU membership.

The Common Fisheries Policy has been a biological, environmental, economic and social disaster, doomed to failure by its ludicrous attempt to manage a complex marine environment with arbitrary bureaucratic policies as inflexible as they are remote.

As I highlighted as Shadow Fisheries Minister in 2005, national control is no panacea if we replicate the same failed policies in London instead of Brussels. It is vital that we use Brexit to free ourselves completely from its grasp and implement a bespoke policy tailored to the needs of the dynamic mixed fisheries which surround our shores.

The core failure is the CFP’s system of individual species quotas. In a mixed fishery such as ours, no matter how careful a fisherman is, he will catch species that exceed his quota.

In such circumstances, his only option is to “discard” the excess into the sea. An estimated 1 million tons of perfectly edible fish are thrown back dead in this way each year – perhaps up to 40% of all fish caught. They are worth some £1.6 billion annually, or the equivalent of 2 billion fish suppers.

To compound this, discarding guarantees that the data gathered to set annual quotas will be inaccurate or, at best, hopelessly out of date meaning theoretical quota limits have become increasingly out of line with the reality of abundance of species. 

An EU discard ban is to be fully enforced as of 2019 but is proving unworkable. Discards are an inevitable symptom of the quota system and it is no use banning the symptom without tackling the root cause.  

Under such bans, when a vessel runs out of quota for one species it must stop fishing, even it if has adequate quota for others. This has potentially ruinous economic effects as vessels will be forced to tie up and return to port upon exhausting their smallest allocation.

When we abandon the CFP, we will be free to move away from the fixed-quota system to one based on the amount of time a vessel can spend at sea – known as “refined effort control”. Here, fisherman can keep, land and record all catches in exchange for a limit on fishing time at sea. Coupled with embracing the latest in modern tracking technology and selective fishing gear – which, remarkably, can carry a penalty inside the EU – we will be able to harvest real-time, accurate data.

Such a system would replace fixed quotas with “Flexible Catch Compositions”, setting targets for a sustainable mixture of species which a vessel should catch. Rather than having to discard when a vessel goes over its allowance, fish caught over the FCC percentage incur a penalty in the time a vessel is allowed at sea equivalent to the value of the excess fish.

There is thus no financial incentive to chase high-value or vulnerable species, since this would lose valuable fishing time. Neither is there any incentive to discard as the value of the loss of time never exceeds the value of the excess fish caught; the loss of time is paid for by the fish. Mandatory landing of all catches ensures that there are no discards and guarantees that the data gathered are up-to-date and accurate to allow a much more responsive management system.

In tandem with rejuvenating the industry, scrapping quotas in favour of real-time management will restore the health of our waters, allow fishermen to catch less fish but land more to create a profitable, rejuvenating industry whilst improving the marine environment to support generations to come.

Trials of refined effort control and other alternative management systems should be conducted immediately. Such trials should be performed on a national basis, involving each major fisheries area, with two or three vessels in each gear category and each sector taking part.

Each vessel would be given exemption from quotas and the associated legislation, and given licences allocating them the number of hours which they are permitted to fish, the gear which they are permitted to use, and FCCs of the mixture of species they should attempt to catch.

To achieve any of this, the Government must act quickly. Yet the disastrous Chequers White Paper advocates a lengthy transition phase under European rules which would prove fatal. Under the transition proposals that must be implemented in full under ‘good faith’, the UK must obey all incoming EU laws, including the 2019 discard ban.  

The EU has every incentive to enforce this ban as international law (UNCLOS 62.2) says if a nation does not have the capacity to catch all its resources it must give the surplus to its neighbours. This is a very long way from the Government’s promise that “the UK will be an independent coastal state, able to control access to its waters.”

Brexit provides a wonderful opportunity to rebuild our fishing industry and improve our marine environment after years of neglect, but the timid proposals from Chequers fail to grasp it. Instead, under the bold terms of a WTO deal, we can immediately abrogate the CFP and revert to international law, automatically retaking control over all water and resources within our Exclusive Economic Zone and negotiating with our neighbours on an equal footing from a position of strength.  

If the trials start now, we can devise a world leading, scientifically informed, accountably controlled management system and the economic, social and environmental potential can be fully realised. That way – and only that way – we can ensure sustainable fisheries and a thriving marine environment for generations to come; we can start to reverse the real damage and pain inflicted by the ruinous CFP on coastal communities.

Theresa May's Chequers plan will prove fatal to British fishing