News: Clearing the fog on UK fishing
By Sir Barney White-Spunner, Advisory Board Chairman, UK Fisheries
19 November 2019
After the British general election, our new representatives at Westminster must act in support of the whole U.K. fishing industry, whatever their political color
It should come as no surprise that the future of the U.K. fishing fleet will be one of the principal battlegrounds of the 2019 general election. Few industries resonate more with the emotions of the British public; and although on a macro-economic scale, fishing is not the force it once was, many coastal communities are still culturally and financially dependent on the vessels of all sizes that, among other things, provide our national dish — fish and chips.
So, there will be no shortage of soundbites or promises of quick fixes from parliamentary hopefuls of all political colors. Then, in December, our new MPs will immediately find themselves confronted with — and perhaps bewildered by — the sheer complexity of the U.K. fishing sector and its close interdependence with the European Union and coastal states around the North Sea. But there is hope.
The search for tweetable solutions to complex problems always leads to bad outcomes, and this is no less true for fishing than it is for any other sector. When the U.K. leaves the EU and is no longer bound by the Common Fisheries Policy, our industry undoubtedly stands to gain from regaining sovereignty over our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). But for all that, it will remain tied in a close symbiosis of trade and access with the EU, as well as with states currently known as ‘third countries’ — not least Norway, the Faroes, and Greenland.
Let’s take two contrasting examples of British fishing activity that both greatly deserve our attention. The first is the fleet of small boats catching high-value shellfish in U.K. waters from Cornwall in south-west England to the north-west of Scotland. The second is the English distant-waters fishing fleet which for centuries has travelled to the rich, but dangerous, fishing grounds of the Barents and Greenland Seas to catch cod for our national dish.
The small, often independently owned boats catch lobster, crab and langoustines mainly destined for EU markets, while specialist ice-class vessels such as UK Fisheries’ Kirkella specialize in whitefish such as cod and haddock, which thrive in icy waters hundreds of miles away from U.K. fishing grounds and are brought back home to Britain.
The catchers of shellfish depend for their livelihood on fast, tariff- and check-free exports of their product to the EU, while the distant-waters fleet, landing its fish at British ports for the British market, relies on long-standing deals with Norway, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands that grant access to their waters.
Neither of these groups will benefit from increased quotas for U.K. boats fishing in British waters, but both could be faced with significant challenges if any post-Brexit regime does not take their needs into account. And so even though we fish in different places for different products for different markets, we have common cause.
And how about the U.K.’s national dish? Well, Kirkella plays an important role in maintaining the Britishness of our fish and chips, supplying freshly frozen cod and haddock caught on a British vessel, operated by a British company with a largely British crew, paying all her taxes in the U.K. and landing her catch in her home port of Hull.
We are proud of our British identity and heritage, and through our European investors we bring millions of pounds of direct foreign investment into our economy.
The U.K. Department for International Trade and Defra have over the past few months shown it is able to strike sensible agreements with third countries. For example, the fisheries and trade agreements signed with Norway and the Faroe Islands would, had a no-deal Brexit been instigated on October 31, have allowed Kirkella to keep operating until the end of 2019.
The same focus and flexibility are required from both departments of state for the negotiation of new, permanent, bilateral deals which will grant our partners continued access to the U.K. market for selling fish, and maintain the fishing opportunities now enjoyed by U.K. vessels operating sustainably in and around the Barents Sea, in the Arctic Ocean.
At a time when we are all craving the kind of clarity that will allow businesses of all types to invest and plan for the future, it is absolutely vital that every effort is made to lock in these temporary arrangements, so that an unintended no-deal Brexit does not bring a sudden and permanent end to distant-waters fishing from English ports. For that is what is at stake.
So perhaps there could, after all, be an easy win for whichever political party holds sway in Westminster after the election. The U.K. has shown willingness to do deals and that is an attitude shared by our partners around the North Sea. This is why we at UK Fisheries will over the coming weeks be working our hardest to ensure that all of the candidates understand and support our message.
Fishing is a part of our national heritage. It can and will have a bright future if all our fishermen and women are allowed to get on with what they do best — bring home British fish in a sustainable way, fairly and without special favors to any particular sectors or nations within the U.K. If our new representatives in Westminster fully understand this, then we need have no fear for the future of our industry.