The exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union has attracted considerable attention to how fisheries management in the UK could be reformed. With Article 50 now triggered, a fisheries expert takes a look at one of the proposals for reform: Catch of today: A ten point plan for British fishing by the Adam Smith Institute.
The headline is a 200 nautical mile aquatic border for the UK fishing industry, protected by air and naval patrols. This proposal is worthy of consideration, unfortunately the report is full of factual inaccuracies that should be corrected to ensure an informed discussion around post-Brexit fisheries. Adding to the problems, the report contains no referencing, bibliography, or signs of review process.
Correction: European fish stocks are growing in abundance.
From the report: “the scientific evidence of dwindling fish stocks is incontrovertible” (pg. 3) and “stocks that have been depleted by years of insensitive and wasteful EU fisheries policy” (pg. 10)
The reality: Overfishing has decreased considerably over the past few decades. Official fish stock assessments reveal that in recent decades most stocks have reversed their decline and many stocks are now approaching sustainable levels – as the Common Fisheries Policy requires (O’Brien, 2016).
Correction: UK fishing is commercially viable and many fleets are highly profitable.
From the report: “With fish stocks in EU waters now too low to make it commercially worthwhile to fish them” (pg. 4) and “Leaving the EU and its Common Fisheries Policy gives the UK a chance to pursue a policy that will make UK fishing a viable and profitable enterprise” (pg. 10)
The reality: The UK has one of the most profitable fishing fleets in the EU, reporting a net profit margin of 18% in 2014 (STECF, 2016). This is a high level of profitability for almost any sector of the economy.
Correction: The UK is a behind many of EU policies that are criticised.
From the report: “The EU frequently overrides the advice of its scientists concerning what catch levels are sustainable” (pg. 2) and “The Spanish and French proved very effective at securing exemptions that prevented their own catch being compromised [by the discard ban]” (pg. 4)
The reality: Research has shown that the UK frequently pushes for quotas set above scientific advice, leaving Council negotiations with quotas set 18% above scientific advice from 2001-2015 (Carpenter et al, 2016). Regarding the discard ban, are not country-specific, as implied, but the UK industry has been one of voices pushing for these exemptions (NFFO, 2015).
Correction: The UK has never maintained a 200nm EEZ.
From the report: “Prior to its 1972 accession to the EEC, the UK maintained an EEZ of 200 miles, and exercised full control of fishing within those waters.” (pg. 2)
The reality: The UK only maintained a 12nm territorial zone prior to accession to the European Community. It created a fishing limit of 200nm in 1976 in order to comply with the Common Fisheries Policy (Fishery Limits Act 1976).
Correction: Figures around catches in the UK EEZ are misleading.
From the report: “80% of fish caught in UK waters netted by foreign boats” (pg. 1)
The reality: 68% by weight and 46% by value of fish in the UK EEZ is caught by foreign boats (Napier, 2016). Three important caveats that need to be mentioned are that these figures include vessels from non-EU countries (Norway and the Faroes), do not include catches by UK vessels in other EEZs so the figure is ‘gross’ as opposed to ‘net’), and are similar to patterns before the Common Fisheries Policy.
Correction: How quotas are allocated has always been a national responsibility.
From the report: “The Individual Transferable Quotas, as they are called, represent proportions of the total allowable catch of each species” (pg. 7) and “The effect of assigning property rights in the fish, and of using technology to police and enforce those rights, has set the world an example of how fish stocks can be sensibly exploited” (pg. 6)
The reality: How quota is allocated is already a national responsibility, unchanged by Brexit. The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark already use ITQs.
Comment by Anonymous
There is a role for organisations to ‘rethink’ how an issue like fisheries management is approached (and not every report needs to be academic in nature); however, this report fails to employ basic practices to ensure quality, objectivity and transparency.
The report does not list any interviews conducted to inform the research, nor does it appear to have undergone a review process from experts in the field for quality assurance. Despite many statements of fact and claims that require support, not a single reference is used and there is no bibliography at the end of the report. There is no statement of funding for this report, nor does the Adam Smith Institute list on their website where they get their funding as an organisation.
The majority of the report is devoted to an explanation of why the EU is bad for fisheries management and that there are better practices in countries outside the EU. This is a position that can be argued, but many, if not most, of the factual claims in the report are incorrect.
The first group of errors is on the basic status of EU fisheries. We read that “the scientific evidence of dwindling fish stocks is incontrovertible (pg. 3)”, “with fish stocks in EU waters now too low to make it commercially worthwhile to fish them (pg. 4)”. This view is perhaps understandable given the reporting on EU fisheries in the media, but a look at the data shows that the report has the status of EU fisheries completely backwards on both the biological and economic dimension of fisheries.
The abundance of fish stocks in EU waters, measured as the spawning stock biomass, is increasing, and most fish stocks are approaching sustainable levels – as the Common Fisheries Policy requires (O’Brien, 2016). This increasing abundance, together with increasing quota limits and low fuel prices, is now leading to an improved economic situation as well. Industry profits are high and rising, although the small-scale sector continues to struggle. The UK fleet in particular has one of the highest net profit margins in the EU at 18.3% (STECF, 2016). This level of profitability is high compared to other sectors of the UK economy. Private investment in the UK fishing industry is also increasing – a sign of optimism around continued economic returns.
Whether the biological and economic situation is better elsewhere is of course a very subjective question. However, attempting to answer this question without acknowledging the different starting points pre-EU management or the unique context of multiple political judications is a significant omission. These two issues are the central conclusions of comparative analysis of EU and alternative management systems (Marchal et al, 2016). In fact, studies have found that when countries like Norway and Iceland deal with fish stocks shared over multiple political jurisdictions they experience similar problems and actually perform worse than the EU (Carpenter et al, 2016).
Another central aspect of the ASI’s diagnosis is that the UK is a relatively small actor being dragged down by the bad actions of other EU member states.
“The French and Spanish fleets are the largest, with both countries exerting considerable pressure on the Common Fisheries Policy to sustain high levels of catches. The EU frequently overrides the advice of its scientists concerning what catch levels are sustainable, and succumbs to political pressure from member states to increase the catch levels set for their own fisheries (pg. 2).”
Presumably only the two largest fleets are referenced as the UK has 6,552 vessels, just under France’s 7,069. On fishing pressure, the statement is incorrect as the UK lands 759,000 tonnes to France’s 527,000, putting the UK in second position in the EU (STECF, 2016).
As for the quota negotiations, it is often the UK minister that is acting to push quotas limit above scientific advice, leaving Council negotiations with quotas set 18% above scientific advice from 2001-2015 (Carpenter et al, 2016).
On the discard ban, we read that “the Spanish and French proved very effective at securing exemptions that prevented their own catch being compromised (pg. 4)”. Not only do these exemptions apply regardless of nationality, the UK industry has been active in lobbying for exemptions and have celebrated their success in achieving them (NFFO, 2015).
Putting all of these factual inaccuracies to the side for a moment, there is also good reason to think that since fish stocks will inevitably be shared, even if the UK were the angel of EU fisheries policy, there is still good reason to want universal standards and a total limit on fishing quotas across countries.
The section of the report praising private property, markets and the system of individual transferable quotas (ITQs) in fisheries management is largely irrelevant to the Brexit discussion. How to allocate fishing quota is already a national decision and some EU countries like the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark have chosen to use ITQ systems.
The headline proposal of a 200 nautical mile militarised border is worthy of consideration, unfortunately it too is supported by a number of factual inaccuracies. “Prior to its 1972 accession to the EEC, the UK maintained an EEZ of 200 miles, and exercised full control of fishing within those waters (pg. 2)”. It is unclear where this idea comes from. The UK extended its EEZ to 200nm in 1976 in order to comply with the Common Fisheries Policy (Fishery Limits Act 1976). In a strict sense, taking UK fisheries policy back before EU management would mean a limit of 12nm.
The report claims that in this potential EEZ, “Some 80% of fish caught in UK waters has been caught by non-UK ships, according to British Sea Fishing (pg. 1).” No reference for this is provided on the British Sea Fishing website. The correct figures are that 68% by weight and 46% by value of fish in the UK EEZ is caught by foreign boats (Napier, 2016). Three important caveats that need to be mentioned are that these figures include vessels from non-EU countries (Norway and the Faroes), do not include catches by UK vessels in other EEZs (so the figure is ‘gross’ as opposed to ‘net’), and are similar to patterns before the Common Fisheries Policy.
Despite these inaccuracies, it may be the case that a militarised border fence would improve UK fisheries. However, there are several key questions that need to be answered that the report fails to engage with:
- How will a border help protect migratory fish stocks and prevent one or both sides from overexploiting an inevitably shared resource?
- Would this proposal have the purported benefits of property rights as fish stocks are mobile and can never be exclusive?
- How do the costs of enforcement compare to the potential gains from enforcement?
- Why is this proposal preferable to a mutual agreement to share or swap access, especially as neither UK vessels nor UK markets have much interest in some species?
- What would the impact of a border be on the overall efficiency fishing in European waters?
- Does such a proposal risk tariffs on UK fish products? How would the benefits and costs of that risk compare?
These are important questions to answer. There may be some arguments for why a militarised aquatic border would improve UK fisheries, but the evidence provided and the great many oversights do not do it any justice.