The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Brexit and Fishing

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 Magnus Johnson, University of Hull

Brexit was a campaign dominated by faith-based arguments challenging facts (somewhat similar to the current US election perhaps). The people in favour of the EU were generally literate experts who consider themselves “citizens of the world”. The sort of folk who are comfortable discussing policy over canapes while sipping organic lime juice. Those that were against were generally less well off, less educated and embedded in local communities. The latter group includes those that go to sea to catch fish in nearshore and national UK waters. For many years these folk have found themselves at odds with the establishment, an establishment that, in their opinion, listens to slick well-financed environmental and industrial lobby groups rather than the small scale fishing industry.

It was therefore not much of a surprise that when given an opportunity to kick the establishment the majority of the UK fishing fleet took it with very obvious and visceral pleasure. Somehow by rejecting the advice of our own government they and the rest of the so-called “Brexiteers” thought they were going to improve the lot of the fishing industry. We would get our waters back, MPAs would be dissolved, regulations loosened, hated quotas would disappear, foreigners would be kicked out of our waters and there would be a rebalancing of access to fish from the industrial sector to the small scale fishing sector. Thus, there would be enough fish to go round for everyone and life would be easy. The day after the referendum some inshore fishers were already asking local authorities if they could stop completing the EU logbooks which document their catches.

Having been caught by surprise at the rejection of the EU, by a slender majority of people who could be bothered to vote in the referendum, experts and the UK government are now scrabbling around trying to work out what the real implications are.

The implications in my view are not great. As the value of sterling dives through the floor, while the UK remains within the single market, there may be some short term gains as fishers (or fish merchants) see their produce becoming more competitive. However the fishing industry does not exist in isolation, it has to purchase fuel and materials from the globalised market. With the low pound and few home-grown sources of materials or equipment these are quickly going to become more expensive.

In the longer term, when the UK leaves the EU and if it leaves the single market, the fishing industry will be dependent on trade deals. Much of the UK catch is exported to the EU. Under WTO rules, in the absence of a single market, tariffs for fish can be expected to be around 10% and exports will be subject to bureaucracy (that many UK citizens can’t remember) adding more cost to the process.

A recent report suggests that over half of fish in UK waters are caught by EU boats (given right of access by the UK government). This figure doesn’t include boats owned by non-UK companies but registered in the UK – a feature of the UK fisheries landscape unlikely to be altered by Brexit. Some of the access of foreign fleets to UK waters predates the EU and they have ingrained rights any change in which will require negotiation under international law. The UK fleet also accesses areas in EU waters where it takes about £200 million of fish a year which would presumably be lost in retaliation for non-UK boats being driven out of UK waters.

The reach of the EU, the biggest trading union in the world, is long. The union now applies pressure to nations well away from Europe to manage their fisheries in what it sees as a responsible manner in exchange for trade agreements. There is no reason why the UK would be regarded any differently. As many stocks will now be considered as straddling stocks the EU will have a particular interest in how stocks are managed and will surely pressurise the UK to manage their fishing fleet in line with EU diktats including TACs, technical measures and the landing obligation. But now, instead of being in the room, a major partner negotiating with fellow Europeans, the UK will be outside of the room – the smaller partner in bilateral discussions. How much the UK government prioritises the fishing industry (worth < 0.1% of UK GDP) when faced with so many other Brexit related issues will be interesting to see.

As climate changes and stocks move north at an estimated 30 km a year the quantities of some fish resident in UK waters to which demersal fishermen want access are likely to decline. However, many fishermen are currently tied to species for which they have quota and governments generally don’t have a great track record of swiftly responding to local changes in fish availability.

Many inshore fisheries are not (yet) tied to specific species by quota but they have been forced through limited access to specific stocks and gear types and the need to be efficient to become specialists. Many do not have either the capacity for wholescale technological changes to facilitate accessing different stocks or finance to access quota that will permit them to catch them. The inshore or small scale sector, with limited range and often tight margins, are particularly vulnerable to broadscale geographical drift/declines in target species abundance.

In the face of Brexit the large UK-based industrial fisheries, with their highly mobile fleet, including companies owned by EU citizens, will survive either by adapting to opportunities offered by greater access to fish previously owned by EU or moving their bases to the EU. The inshore sector will have to survive on the local grounds to which it has access. There could be an opportunity for a complete paradigm shift towards localised co-management. This could allow greater flexibility in what fishers are able to target and faster management responses to changing fish availability. In order to manage the inshore fleet effectively however, it is likely that there will need to be a cap on effort, probably including a reduction in the number of boats. This is something that may happen naturally as many struggling fishermen go out of business in the face of higher costs and more restricted market access. I hope I am wrong.

Magnus Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Marine Biology at the University of Hull. Find him on twitter @Acanthephyra, or on his blog.


Share this story:


Subscribe to our newsletter:

Read more:

One Response

Leave a Reply

Ray Hilborn's every-so-often newsletter

The best way to keep up with our stories.