The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Brexit, Fisheries, and Forgotten History

A recent article in The Times by Hugo Rifkind discussed the challenges faced by the United Kingdom’s fishing industry as the UK prepares to leave the European Union, per the Brexit vote earlier this year. According to Rifkind, many in the fishing community sided with the “Leave” campaign, but may regret their decision to do so. Rifkind cites the impending trade complications as the most ominous of problems: For example, UK fishermen currently export 80% of catches, mostly to the EU. After Leaving, UK fishermen will lose access to their largest and most important market.

But, much of the fishing in British waters is done by European fishermen who will lose access post-Leave. Brexit will force an interesting negotiation between UK fishermen, who need access to the European market, and European fishermen who need access to British waters. Rifkind laments that this negotiation could potentially swing against UK fishermen and ultimately result in UK fishermen being worse-off.

Comment by Michel J. Kaiser, Bangor University @MichelJKaiser

Hugo Rifkind’s article in the Times looking at the interplay between Brexit and fisheries paints a truly complex picture of unknown consequences and forgotten history. History, that thing that most fishermen who voted for Brexit would do well to remember, has many lessons to teach us about what may happen. Rifkind reminds us of the 1970s cod war and sudden ending of access to Icelandic waters for the British fleet, which at the time was losing many lives in the frozen waters of the North Atlantic where they fished to reap a lucrative harvest. At that time, ports like Grimsby and other famous east coast ports depended on cod from the north. Almost overnight these fishing ports entered a depressing decline that only in recent decades has been reversed with a vibrant seafood processing sector.

But it couldn’t happen again could it? Oh but it just did. Mackerel that favoured a migration route down the western shelf off the west coast of Scotland and Ireland used to to be caught conveniently in a short fishing season that made millionaires in weeks. Sadly, climate or ecosystem changes mean the fish now prefer Icelandic and Norwegian waters where British boats need to negotiate access rights to continue catching the fish. Add this to the arguments of who’s science is right or wrong regarding the quota set in Norway, Iceland and the EU, and you have a recipe for potential over-harvesting.

So history repeats itself: either borders are put up, access rights are denied, or the fish move to follow their food to the temperature of the water. The first two we can negotiate (maybe), but the biological responses are impossible to control. Brexit sounds attractive for anyone fishing for shellfish as their movement patterns are either non-existent or restricted to defined regions such as the English Channel.

Scallops would be a good example wouldn’t they? Well, maybe not when we remember that certain nomadic UK scallopers were surrounded by French vessels while fishing in the Baie de Seine off the coast of France. One imagines the welcome offered to the UK fleet will be somewhat frostier in future. Of course, once we have ‘our’ waters back all the foreign vessels will be kicked out…or maybe not, as many UK vessels are only flagged as UK boats but owned by European countries such as Holland.

Again in our rush to forget history we forget that the UK industry happily sold vessels with quota entitlement back in the 1980s and 1990s. As I write this article the UK Seafish Industry Authority is about to convene a meeting regarding the possible consequences of Brexit for the UK seafood industry. I use the term ‘industry’ in its broadest context because the biggest contributors to UK GDP in fisheries are the fish processing companies and importers, not the fishing industry. Brexit is likely to affect processors and importers hardest given any imposition of trade barriers.

On the upside, Brexit does give the UK the opportunity to change the way we manage and enforce fisheries, and it may encourage much greater buy-in from sceptical sections of the fishing industry. Greater sense of ‘control’ and ‘ownership’ does lead to better practices and does make different sectors more likely to negotiate positive management arrangements that promote sustainability. If we can move to a system where the UK becomes a model of good practice then other nations will either want to replicate the systems in place or pay to join UK associations to become part of that system, but on local terms. Nevertheless, this is going to take time, and a ten year timescale seems most likely.

Michel J. Kaiser is a Professor of Marine Conservation Ecology at Bangor University. He has previously written for CFood on scallop dredging in Cardigan Bay. Find him on twitter here.


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2 Responses

  1. This piece omits the change of economic territorial waters from 12 nautical miles to 200nm (or midpoint) under the UN Law of the Sea that was introduced subsequent to the Heath Government surrendering the UK territorial waters as a Community Resource.

    Also, it is false to say that fishermen ‘happily’ surrendered their fishing rights and scrapped their boats – see https://www.independent.co.uk/news/fishermen-forced-to-scrap-boats-and-cut-catches-1524112.html for example.

    The low recent GDP% figures from fishing are a direct result of the EU eviscerating our marine industries. The recent vested-interest wails of a few nouveau-riche processing magnates should not divert us from providing highly respected employment for the kind of robust young men who will tend to have higher representation in highly physical offshore fishing (as opposed to onshore processing) and who are likely to be actively or passively troublesome if left long-term unemployed.

    It is true that stocks are low at present, but if we secure the 200nm (or midpoint) UN-prescribed waters, the time taken to restore the boats and skills will allow the stocks to hugely rebound in the same way they did between 1939-45 when WW2 made it extremely dangerous to be on the sea at all.

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