Brexit Fish Stew – Toxic and Incendiary
By Kent Barker
It was one of UKIP’s key platforms before last June’s referendum – Nigel Farage, stately as a ship’s figurehead, lead a flotilla of fishing vessels up the Thames to Westminster, trumpeting “we want our waters back”. His argument – and that of most of the British fishing industry including the Hastings fleet – was that 64% of all fish caught in north-western Europe comes from “British” waters and that a sizable majority is fished by EU vessels as opposed to British boats. And worse still, some EU fishermen have been able to register their vessels under a British flag leading to claims that one single Dutch-owned trawler caught nearly a quarter of the UK’s entire quota.
The lobby group Fishing for Leave suggests that ending the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and keeping the “foreigners” out of our waters would be a massive benefit to the UK fishing industry worth a ‘colossal’ £6.3 billion and 22,000 jobs.
But what Britain might gain on the swings other European countries would certainly lose on the roundabout and there will, therefore, be considerable incentive for the EU to maintain the status quo over fishing. It’s a situation of which the European Parliament is all too well aware. Seven provisions to be included in Britain’s “exit agreement” have been drafted by MEPs including the demand that there should be “no increase to the UK’s share of fishing opportunities for jointly fished stocks” – thus maintaining the existing quota distribution in UK and EU waters.
This has led to a perhaps predictable torrent of invective from UKIP MEPs. The party’s aptly named fisheries spokesman Mike Hookem characterised it as a desperate attempt to “grab” UK fish stocks. “UK waters must return to UK control regardless of what the EU want,” he said. Meanwhile his south-east England counterpart in the European Parliament, Ray Finch, said that Britain “expected the return of its fishing waters” to the 200-mile international limit.
Quite how a 200-mile “British” limit would work in the Channel – only 20 miles across at its narrowest point – is somewhat unclear. One can hardly see French Fishermen leaving their harbour at Calais or Dunkirk and saying “Ah, c’est les poissons Anglais ici. Nous ne pecherons pas!” (These are English fish. We must not catch them), before sailing 200 miles up into the North Sea to put out their lines. Indeed, given their propensity to blockade ports at the drop of a beret, travel to the continent could be disrupted more or less permanently.
It’s all scarily reminiscent of the mid 1970s and the so-called ‘cod wars’ in the North Atlantic. Dwindling fish stocks led Iceland unilaterally to extend its territorial waters to 50 miles. British and West German trawlers ignoring the limit were confronted by Icelandic coast guard vessels, had their net-lines cut and, were even fired upon. British Royal Naval patrols were unable to prevent the fishing boat the C.S. Forester – one of the largest wet fish trawlers in the British fleet, being shelled and impounded by an Icelandic gun boat.
Meanwhile there’s the question of fish stocks. British fishermen accuse the CFP of being responsible for the tight restrictions on “total allowable catches” and are far from convinced it helps preserve stocks. Others believe that it’s only the CFP that can prevent overfishing in European waters. Meanwhile the UK and other EU countries are signatories to the 1995 United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement making it highly unlikely that quotas could or would be abolished for the British fleet even if, somehow, EU boats were kept out of “our” territorial waters. And even then there’s the question of whether boats under 10 meters – including the Hastings Fleet – get a fair share of any quota. The Hastings Green Party argues smaller boats are more environmentally sustainable and, despite comprising 80% of the UK fleet, get only 6% of the quota.
All in all, it looks like an intractable mess – an unpalatable fish-stew that’s going to take years to sort out and will end up satisfying no one. A typical consequence of Brexit then?