Fish and Brexit

Fish and Brexit

On 23rd June, 2016 a referendum in which everyone (or nearly everyone) of voting age could take part was held in Britain to decide whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union. I have still to understand why, but anyway almost 52% of the British voted to leave the EU, while 48% preferred to stay, writes Menakhem Ben-Yami.

The only real precedent for a nation leaving the European Union is Greenland, which had joined as a part of Denmark. In 1982 Greenlanders voted by a similarly narrow margin to leave, ironically primarily because of a dispute over fishing rights, and the issue was finally settled after several years but continues to recur. Greenland retains a close proximity to the EU, there is also still a lobby in favour of rejoining – and the issue has been re-ignited by Brexit.

Acting on the result of the referendum, the UK government triggered the leaving mechanism to start the formal exit process, using the Article 50 clause in the Lisbon Treaty that outlines the steps to be taken by a country seeking to leave the bloc voluntarily.

The process lasts two years so the intention is for the UK to leave the EU on 29th March 2019. EU law still stands valid in the UK until it ceases being a member. But there is currently uncertainty about how final the break will be on that day - the UK government wants a transition period of around two years to allow a smooth implementation of whatever Brexit deal is negotiated and minimise disruption to businesses, industry, the travel sector and more.

So how is Brexit going to affect fish? Not at all. They will keep swimming around exactly in the same sort of waters they preferred to swim in before the Brexit, without caring whether they're still European, or have become British. The problem is that while Brexit will not affect fish in the sea it's going to have a major political/economic effect on the European fisheries.

On one hand Brexit could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to increase sustainable fishing in British waters. On the other, however, the reality might not match the expectation.

"After a long negotiation, I am happy to say that we have reached an agreement on fishing opportunities for 2018 in the Atlantic and the North Sea," said the EU's Commissioner for Environment Karmenu Vella at the end of last December’s annual round of jockeying for position over fisheries access at the Council of Ministers.

He noted that 53 stocks were now in line with what scientists say are sustainable levels, up from 44 in 2017, and representing two-thirds of the fish stocks discussed in Brussels. The total number of stocks decided upon on that Wednesday night in December was around 200.

Since 2015, EU states are legally required to tackle overfishing of those stocks ‘where possible,’ and for all species by 2020 at the latest. However, there has never been a year in which ministers obliged to keep also short-term economic interests of fishermen in mind have just followed scientific advice on sustainable fishing quotas for all fish stocks.

"Like every year these negotiations are about finding a balance between the sustainability of our fish stocks and the needs of our fishermen," said Estonian minister for fisheries Siim Kiisler following the December meeting.

While this balancing act is expected to continue until 2020, next year the traditional annual haggling may look different. As usual, environmental groups criticised the quota deal as too generous for fishermen, saying it will lead to continued overfishing.

Andrew Clayton, of influential environmental lobby Pew Charities Trust said that the UK has raised expectations among UK fishermen to increase their fishing opportunities.

"To stay in the bounds of sustainability, that quota can only come from one place, it can only come from other nations' fleets," he said.

In December this year, the UK will be discussing fish quotas for 2019, a year when it will be a full EU member for only 87 days. How Brexit will affect Europe's fisheries will depend on how develop the general negotiations between the UK and the remaining 27 member states. This will include moving the Brexit talks on to the next phase, concerning the UK's new relationship with the EU.

In particular Dutch and Danish fishermen who face losing access to UK waters in the North Sea are unhappy about this consequence of Brexit. Although the fishing industry has some vocal lobbyists, fisheries are unlikely to be a focal point of the withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU, according to Lasse Gustavsson, a Swede who's the executive director for the European branch of Oceana.

He said also that he could imagine EU states giving up on defending their fishermen "in exchange for access to UK market for their car industry. "Spain, for example, surely wants to sell its Seat cars to the British market. It probably could be more important in terms of jobs and money than fishing in British waters,” he commented.

"Denmark is the most vulnerable of all. It's a small country," Lasse Gustavsson said, complaining that he was unable to extract any information from the "tight-lipped British."

"Negotiations can get nasty" he said. "I've seen the Danish government preparing documents to claim historical rights because they were fishing in the North Sea at least since the 1200s," he added.

Conversely, while fishing has a totemic value in the UK, it remains a marginal industry compared to the automobile industry that relies on cross-border access and the financial sector that appears to already be jumping ship to establish itself in Europe. The possibility is there that both sides could sacrifice their fishing for something juicier.

In the end, even after Brexit the UK will still have to abide by other international agreements on sustainable fishing. And lastly Bjorn Stockhausen of the Seas at Risk lobby said; "the underlying basis for the fisheries management must remain scientific advice."

And this is certainly the wisest advice of them all.

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