The UK will soon learn that being a sovereign country allows you to successfully manage your fishing industry

The UK will soon learn that being a sovereign country allows you to successfully manage your fishing industry

Historically speaking, the United Kingdom today finds itself in a way in a similar situation to Iceland during the Cod Wars. These were waged between the two countries over fishing in the waters around Iceland in the latter half of the 20th Century and initiated by the decision of the Icelandic Government to expand the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to eventually reach 200 nautical miles, based on conservation arguments and economic reliance.

The last Cod War was waged in the 1970s shortly after the UK joined the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community. The two countries consequently went on different paths as far as their fisheries were concerned. While Britain joined the EEC and sacrificed its fishing industry at the altar of the failed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – which has led to the decline and foreign exploitation it has suffered since – Iceland laid the foundation for the robust fishing sector it enjoys today.

However, there is a certain fundamental difference between Britain’s circumstances now and the situation Iceland found itself in when the Cod Wars were waged. During the Cod Wars, the 200-mile EEZs had not been internationally recognised, as they are today. Therefore Britain has not only strong conservation arguments on its side but also an absolute and undisputed right to a 200-mile EEZ (or the median line) according to international law.

After Brexit, the EU is already demanding the right to continue fishing in British waters as before, despite having no legal right to – a fact of which Brussels is well aware. Traditional fishing rights, which may or may not exist, simply do not override the right of a sovereign coastal state to a 200-mile EEZ according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). And while UNCLOS instructs coastal states to seek agreements on shared fish stocks, that depends on reaching a common ground.

Therefore, should the UK decide to allow EU fishing vessels into British waters post-Brexit to a greater extent than can be justified on grounds of mutual agreements on shared fish stocks, it will be because the British Government chooses to do so, not because it is obliged to do so. While the Government seems determined to reclaim full control over Britain’s 200-mile EEZ, how it intends to manage it is more of a question. Keeping significant parts of the hated CFP did seem to be on the table; happily, Michael Gove seems to be following the ambition of his predecessor at DEFRA, which is excellent news for the UK’s fishing prospects.

The core reason why Iceland has been able to manage its fishing industry with the success it has is primarily due to the fact that the country has had the ability to defend its interests as a sovereign country. While sovereignty is of paramount importance – which means being able to decide how much can be caught, what species, where, how, when and by whom – a sensible management system is also essential to make sure this is done in a sustainable and responsible way.

While the vast majority of Icelanders have strong faith in Iceland’s fishing management system compared to those of other countries, according to opinion polls there is a widespread view that the CFP has generally speaking been a disaster. Not only are British fishermen of that opinion, but also the British Government, environmental organisations and even the EU itself. Therefore the UK should not retain anything from the CFP unless it is proven to be the best practice available.

What is important is not to focus on the current condition of the British fishing sector, after decades of foreign exploitation and poor management by the EU, but what it may gradually become in the future through sensible and truly sustainable management by the British themselves. Leaving the EU offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fundamentally rethink the way British fisheries are being managed, taking note of the best practices of other countries.

The way the British fishing industry was sacrificed when Britain joined the EU’s predecessor in 1973 has cast a dark shadow on the country’s membership of the bloc ever since. Therefore, how the fisheries issue will be dealt with in the coming Brexit negotiations between the British Government and the EU will without doubt play a significant role when history reviews how successful leaving the EU really was.

Photocredit: William Murphy