‘Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves’: From fishing patriotism to pragmatism

A boat forming part of a pro-Brexit “flotilla” makes its way along the River Thames in London on 15 June. John Stillwell/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Pop quiz: which UK industry is approximately equal in size to sewing machine manufacturing, yet claims to have swung the Brexit vote?

You may have guessed it – it’s the fishing industry. The vociferous complaints of loss of control, sovereignty and access to our waters and fish have become the symbolic talisman of the Brexiteers. But would people have felt the same way seeing Nigel Farage aboard a sewing machine, or a lawnmower – another economic equal?

There is no denying that the fishing industry has emotive power. But it is time to start asking the serious questions about whether Brexit could deliver real control for UK fishermen.

Let’s start with some context. According to the most recent EU level fisheries publication there are 6,552 fishing vessels in the UK (90% of fishing businesses only have one vessel), and the industry employs around 12,000 fishermen. Between them the vessels landed 758.8 thousand tonnes, worth just over a billion pounds in 2014. On average UK vessels land around 400,000 tonnes of fish each year in the UK, and between 200,000 and 300,000 tonnes abroad. The capture fishing industry represents less than 0.1% of UK GDP.

This interest in an industry that is worth less than a tenth of a percent of GDP, and only marginal in employment terms, is a result of the famous flotilla on the Thames and the use of the fishing industry to claim that the EU has ‘failed UK fishermen’. The talk of sovereignty and controlling our waters is very emotive stuff, and taps into the maritime heritage and island mentality of ‘bloody foreigners stealing our fish’. On top of that, the fishing industry has had its expectations raised, probably unfairly, by promises of ‘total control’, exclusion of other fishing fleets, and increases in fishing quota available to them. But can Brexit deliver? Is the fate of the UK fishing industry going to be the litmus test for a successful Brexit?

Before we think about Brexit, it’s important to understand six key points about the fishing industry:

  1. Fish stocks and profits have been improving under the Common Fisheries Policy since 2003. The recent communication from the European Commission on state of play of the Common Fisheries Policy showed that 44 stocks (61% of the total North East Atlantic catches of interest to the UK fleet) are at a level which can produce the maximum sustainable yield (MSY), the stated policy objective for all EU stocks by 2020. In the same sea area the average biomass of fish was 35% higher in 2015 than in 2003. Fishing capacity, which has been too high for decades in the EU overall, is also dropping (and therefore more in line with what is available to catch without risking stock collapse). In terms of profit, the industry across the EU recorded an unprecedented net profit of €770 million in 2014 – a 50% increase versus 2013 – contributed €3.7 billion to the EU economy.
  2. The UK large scale fleet is the most profitable of the lot, with the gross profit margin increasing from 15% in 2008 to 25% in 2014 – amounting to over 280 million euros. It is hardly difficult times for those who sent their multi-million pound vessels down from Scotland to the Thames (burning hundreds of litres of red diesel subsidised by the UK taxpayer) to complain about their raw deal. However…
  3. The UK industry is split between large and small vessels, who have had very different fates over the last 30 years under UK Government quota policy. The majority of UK vessels are ‘small scale’, defined as under 10m in length, who generally fish inshore waters (within 12 miles from shore). This inshore fleet is three quarters of the workforce, and mainly fish for shellfish bound for the continent (mainly France, Spain and Italy). Tariffs and non-tariff barriers are therefore a major concern given that part of the reason they have been targeting shellfish is that all shellfish (with the exception of langoustines) are outside of the EU quota system.
  4. Investment has been increasing in fishing for years. There has been an unprecedented level of investment which has steadily gained momentum over the past two years, according to Fishing News. This confidence and investment started before the referendum on EU membership was on the horizon, which doesn’t align with the theory that the EU is suffocating the fishing industry.
  5. Fishing is a globalised industry and seafood is heavily traded. Around half of the UK catch ends up in the EU market, and there are 6,187 British flagged vessels in EU w Meanwhile, there are thought to be around 26 Dutch and 40 Spanish vessels with rights to catch high percentages of the quota for some major fish stocks of interest to UK fishermen. It is these vessels that have often attracted the negative attention of UK fishers.
  6. It’s the processing sector, not the catching sector, that generates most of the economic activity in fishing. Processing is the silent core of the industry, and includes the processing of imported fish and farmed salmon. The sector is highly reliant on EU labour, meaning that Brexit poses significant challenges. Environment minister Michael Gove has said that boats from EU countries will still be able to operate in UK waters after Brexit, as the UK does not have enough capacity to catch and process all its fish alone.

With this context in mind, what could Brexit mean for the fishing industry?

The nationalist-utopian idea of exclusive access to British waters and larger quotas could in theory be a massive windfall for some. But the reality of this kind of confrontational approach not only threatens a re-run of the Cod Wars, but would also create barriers to the EU market which would cause huge concern among many in the industry. And then there is the threat of a crash in fish stocks through overfishing – something we know from recent memory would have very negative impacts on the industry and society as a whole.

We simply don’t know how the negotiations will run, what will be traded-off against UK fisheries and how access regimes will be agreed. But we do know that ultimately the only way the seas can be managed fairly is through co-operation between the different nations who fish them.

It’s easy to understand why UK fishermen resent the EU and the Common Fisheries Policy. The quota shares that the UK government agreed to on entering the EU were less favourable compared to the French, for example. The way that the UK government allocated its share of the EU total catch has meant the inshore fleet has had to throw edible fish overboard. UK fishermen want the fish stocks they have exploited for generations to deliver economic benefits to the UK coastal communities which so desperately need a boost. An optimistic view is fair enough, and small-scale fishermen in particular need something positive to focus on, but can and will UK coastal communities benefit?

As things stand, EU owned vessels accessing British waters have to fulfil one of four requirements:

  1. land at least half the catch in British ports;
  2. hire a crew where at least half are British (coastal) residents;
  3. spend at least half of your operating expenditure in the UK, or;
  4. demonstrate other benefits to the fishing community (e.g. quota donations).

Post-Brexit this could be reformed in various ways (e.g. tightening criteria to ensure fish is landed and processed in the UK – but this may require additional investment in port infrastructure), or even replaced with a landings tax which could be used to cover management costs, science or enforcement and get a public return to ensure a genuine benefit to UK coastal communities without having to resort to confrontational approaches or massive enforcement and legal bills.

Was Brexit necessary to push for a different allocation of EU quota shares?

Ever since the late 1970s the European Economic Community (EEC) has operated a policy called ‘relative stability’ which fixed shares of catches to reduce fishing pressure. This was agreed by all members, including the UK, and was based on historical catches, losses incurred through the establishment of exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and the needs of coastal communities highly dependent on fisheries.

However, dissatisfaction with these arrangements has grown as climate change and specialisation in fishing activity by different EU countries and fleets has caused significant changes to fishing stocks. There is a clear case to reform the relative stability policy (which took 7 years to negotiate in the first place) with what is called ‘zonal attachment’. Under this new approach, quota shares would be determined by the share of biomass of each stock within each EEZ, rather than the volumes of fish caught by each country over 30 years ago.

It’s worth noting that the UK could have pushed to reform relative stability from within the EU and Common Fisheries Policy (and they might have used their influence within Brussels to more effect) so a car crash Brexit is hardly a prerequisite for improving UK fisheries.

Unilateralism won’t work

The UK would be reckless to unilaterally replace the Common Fisheries Policy with domestic law and dictate terms of access to EU vessels of EU Member States. Instead, agreeing a bilateral agreement with the EU is the best way forward. Research for the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries (PECH) suggests a preferential regime with EU Member States which currently fish UK waters would be necessary. If the UK fails to do this and pursues unilateralism, other countries could respond by saying that their access rights ‘trump’ UK domestic law. If this happens, there is a risk of starting the cod wars all over again, albeit this time in reverse, where the UK has to defend its EEZ from others. This is clearly a risk that the UK cannot afford to take, as the sea border for our 200-nautical-mile EEZ would be un-patrollable.

There have been moves towards copying the Common Fisheries Policy into the Great Repeal Bill, but according to legal experts this idea of ‘repatriating the CFP’ is delusional, as key EU legislation is so focussed on the commission, council and EU agencies that it would be easier to start from scratch, writing an entirely new policy as promised in the Queens Speech (in the shape of a Fisheries Bill / Act). Parliamentary approval, a devolution deal and systems and funding for science and enforcement will not be wrapped up immediately, so a transitional deal will be needed. Setting up meetings in Brussels and reaching that agreement now, rather than focussing on the Faroes and Iceland, would therefore seem a more pragmatic approach.

But with fishing not even on the Brexit agenda yet, we can expect more twists and turns over the coming weeks, months and, most likely, years.

  • Alasdair Macdonald

    The author is demonstrating his ‘British’ nationalist presumption about the governance of fishing. Powers over fishing under the devolved legislation lies with the Scottish Government for Scottish waters (the greatest area of the UK territorial waters), with the Welsh Assembly and, if it is operational, with the Assembly in Northern Ireland.

    When these powers are ‘returned from Brussels’ they should, of course, be returned to the devolved governments. But, of course, Westminster will not permit this. It clearly intends to hold these powers to be used in the negotiations with the EU and to be used as a bargaining chip. It is likely that fishings rights, agriculture, etc, which in principle rest in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh will be traded in the interests of maintaining rights for the City of London financial sector to have access to the single financial market.

    You are right of course, to skewer the mendacity of the claims about the Common Fisheries Policy and to point out the hypocrisy of the wealthy Scottish fishing skippers in joining the flotilla of lies on the Thames.

    On the news in Scotland, it is the views of the clique which runs the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation – a pretty right wing, racist, sectarian mob – which is presented as the view of the entire fishing community. It should be remembered that every constituency in Scotland including those with the fishing industry voted to REMAIN – every one!

    You are also right to point out the contribution of fish processing. Like agriculture, this depends heavily on European workers. In parts of Shetland which have large numbers of processing workers, the indigenous population voted heavily LEAVE, no doubt influenced by the anti immigrant rhetoric of Farage et al. All parts of Scotland have benefitted from immigration; we need MORE immigrants.

    There is a lot of sense in your article, but please recast it in the context of how the authorities in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales can determine how things will develop in relation to Europe. Westminster should of course, negotiate on behalf of the fleets and processors in England, only.

    • Marine economics

      Dear Alasdair, I agree with you entirely. Blog too short to go into the devolution issues but you are right: Scotland is the big prize and therefore bargaining chip for Brexit negotiation. Its not my British nationalist presumption – it’s currently a statement of fact that no Scottish or Welsh negotiators are at the table in Brussels. Its unfair and doesn’t fit the principle of devolved power, but it’s happening anyway.

      • Alasdair Macdonald

        Marine Economics,

        Thank you for the prompt response and for the explanation of the constraints under which you were operating. I withdraw my ‘British nationalist’ jibe! Apologies.

        David Cameron, before his resignation stated quite clearly that all the devolved parliaments would be fully involved in the negotiations. But, the undemocratic and frankly authoritarian, Theresa May has simply ignored this. As Ken Clark said to Malcolm Rifkind in the eavesdropped conversation in the Sky studio, “she’s a bloody difficult woman”.

        What your informed article demonstrates is the need for a new constitutional settlement for the UK. Perasonally, I would prefer Scotland to become independent. Although it is for themselves to decide, I think Ireland should reunite and Wales make its own way, too. I think that only in this way can the majority of the people of England free themselves from this fuzzy ‘Britain’ myth and its inherent dominance of a particular class and its concept of a nation and create an England of the regions within which power and wealth is more equitably distributed and in which the many valid cultures can flourish.

        Although you are an economist, it is a discipline which is based on cultural and social values. As you have pointed out clearly, there is a significant class divide amongst fishermen and amongst processors. There is a wealthy (self-proclaimed) elite and there are many others who ‘make a living’. By redistributing power then the different national fishing communities as wholes could begin to use your framework and fact base to
        negotiate, with our European neighbour’s a sustainable deal which provides better returns for all.

        A similar argument could be made with regard to agriculture.

  • DamianHockney

    However much one argues how marvellous the CFP is, the reality is it has barely any defenders in the remain camp, and in fact was sedulously avoided by them in campaigning for a whole host of reasons – above all that there are some pretty awful aspects of it that are difficult to stand up for. If it were so easy to deconstruct the Leave camp’s flotilla in the Thames, why was it left to Bob Geldof and a motley rabble screaming obscenities at the fishermen? You describe the industry as small…and the reason for this is mostly the CFP and its record of destruction. The history of the secret and cynical betrayal of the fishing industry by the Heath government on accession is pretty well documented. No Remainer would ever dare open up that argument for staying in the EU as a major plank in any campaign. Or even a minor one. When in doubt, delegate the job to a boat of fools screaming insults at Labour MP Kate Hoey and Nigel Farage.

    The key surely is the greater control which is widely felt will be possible once the UK is no longer bound automatically to the CFP. With the revival of the idea that no incoming government can be bound by its predecessor (even if this is a simplistic way of looking at it), it will make it more difficult for governments to automatically say “our hands are tied” even if they want to. This has happened a fair amount over agriculture and fisheries during the past 40 years, notably under the Blair government.

    Norway and Iceland have constantly rejected the idea of membership of the EU, in spite of being pressured by much of the political class to join. The voters’ reasons are clear – they know that their fisheries will be destroyed by EU membership and its woeful CFP, and the lessons of the disaster of the CFP are only unclear to those who wish it to be otherwise.

    • Alasdair Macdonald

      DamianHockney, thank you for the comment.

      One of the problems for many REMAINers, including me, was the obvious flaws in the EU project and balancing these against the benefits which the EU had brought to much of Europe, including many sparsely populated areas.

      There were issues about the powers of the Commission, the particular approach to the economy.

      Often, in politics, we are faced with choosing the ‘least worst’ option.

      On the New Statesman website today, Yanis Veroufakis, the former economics minister of Greece, presents such an argument which he said he maid to Messrs Corbyn and McDonnell.

      Norway has the benefit of oil and gas and a sovereign fund which it has managed very well (in contrast to the plundering of the oil and gas in Scottish waters mainly to fill the maw of the city. While the unionists have crowed about the fall in oil prices and the ‘loss’ in revenue over the past four years, Norway has continued to gain. The UK Government, pace Brown and Darling with the bankers, shovelled cash towards the oil companies. Norway, like other Nordic states has a much better functioning democracy which distribute wealth much more equitably., unlike the City/Westminster/Whitehall/mainstream media clique.

      Iceland suffered badly following the 2008 crash, mainly due to a small clique. However, Iceland dealt with them in a way that the UK would not do. Indeed, the oafish PM Brown sought to add to Iceland’s problems. Again, Iceland has a good participative democracy. It has historically been doughty in its defence of its fishing stocks. I remember the stories of the ‘Cod War’ against the Wilson Government.

      The EU requires greater devolution.

    • Marine economics

      Dear Damian,
      There are two major considerations you have not mentioned:
      1. the majority of jobs in fishing were lost before we joined the CFP, in the period after WW2.
      2. The major decline in fishing on the East Coast (Grimsby, Hull, etc) was lost as a result of Iceland declaring their 200nM EEZ and thus (via cod wars) excluding the UK distant water fleet (and associated workforce). Again, this was not the CFP.
      I agree the CFP has major issues, but the last 2013 reform is very progressive in many ways. Problems were decommissioning schemes, harmful subsidies and in a large part also what Member States did with their shares of quota. In the case of the UK these were privatised excluding the majority of the remaining workforce from access to the resource or forcing discarding or illegal fishing. That (also) was a UK Govt decision.
      Thanks for your comment.

      • DamianHockney

        But surely Chris, the problem in the mid 70s was not just Iceland’s declaration of a 200 mile zone. It was what happened at the same time with the ‘equal access’ issues in which the Uk lost out specifically because of the control of fishing through the CFP, and the loss by the UK of the same rights enjoyed by other nations over their waters. These planned developments were concealed from Parliament on accession a few years earlier and it is recognised that Parliament was lied to by the government attempting to get the UK into the then EEC. Parliament was told that “these are not transitional arrangements which will lapse after the end of a fixed period”, but MPs were not allowed to examine the text until after it had been voted on (!) and when they did later see it, too late, it was clear that the government had told a blatant lie.

        The resulting CFP – and those expiring 10-year derogations that were concealed from Parliament – were therefore the direct reasons why the UK lost the ability to impose its own 200 mile limit that Iceland had declared, and (worse) had to now accept that fishing was to be parcelled out by the then EEC. The subsequent 40 years has simply been a sorry mess that has enormously damaged the reputation of the EU (leave aside the issues regarding fisheries). This is why Remain has been boxed into a corner on the CFP as it is beyond defence and reputational rescue – therefore Remain left its response to the EU’s terrible record in this area just to childish insult by Remain people howling obscenities at fishermen and their supporters from a boat on the Thames (but of course no facts or figures or defence of the indefensible on the media by those screaming swearwords).

        The ‘reforms’ of the early years of the century were simply a ruse to enforce even greater central control by the Commission over fishing under the entirely false guise of ‘de-centralisation’. And the destruction of important elements of the Scottish industry. I have lived through endless supposed reforms where wide-eyed apologists (I am not saying this of you btw) tell me that it is all great now and the reforms are fab and really it all going to go well (that was how 2002/03 was touted by apologists for the EU) …but the real bottom line is that within the EU it will always be more of the same, a constant battle for power and little real change except words. Out of the EU (however simplistic the arguments are about ‘control’) there is always the possibility of better things – if it is in the nature of humans to want at least to have some hope through being able to influence their own futures, it is also in their nature to rebel against huge impersonal and lofty structures which offer nothing except that infamous boot in the face forever and no hope at all. That is how the CFP and CAP have appeared to most British people who have had any experience of them over the past two generations.

  • tartanrock

    It’s a very interesting article, Chris, but as a layman I have a couple of queries.
    1) What was the size of the British fishing industry before we joined the EU? I understand (I have no figures) that when the UK controlled its own territorial waters the fleet was much bigger than it is now. Under the Common Fisheries Policy, we were allocated a quota of the fish (13%?) although it was said that 80% of the viable EU fishing grounds were in British and Irish waters. Given that it was a small quota, which subsequently we had to share with vessels owned by fishermen from other EU countries, it would be hardly surprising that our fishing industry has declined to the point where it now makes only a small contribution to GDP. Did it make a bigger contribution before 1973? What size might our fishing industry be now if we had not joined the EU?
    2) It’s very confusing when you refer to ‘UK boats’ and ‘EU boats’. The statistics for landed catches produced by Marine Management Organisation do not distinguish between UK boats which are ‘British’ and UK boats which may be from other UK countries, e.g. Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese boats, but which are registered as British in order to access the British quota. In the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, Parliament included a clause that required British-registered boats to be at least 75% British-owned. This was found to be incompatible with EU rules (the Factortame case) and had to be withdrawn. It was much cited at the time as a case that showed that our Parliament was no longer sovereign. Have you managed in your article to separate British-owned boats from those owned by fishermen from other EU countries?

    • Marine economics

      Great that you bring up the factortame case tartanrock and for a “layman” you have a remarkable amount of knowledge and insight into how flag-ships work and UK data sources on landings. Great you have taken such an interest. Employment was roughly double what it is now pre EU (25k) and roughly double that before WW2 (50k). I’ll send you a good link ..

    • Marine economics

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