Brexit: The betrayal of the fishing industry has been incredible and shameful – Simon Collins

The British fishing industry is not likely to forgive its betrayal on Christmas Eve 2020.

Birds circle above fishing boats and trawlers as they sit moored at Lerwick Harbour in Shetland (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

That was when the UK government struck a deal with the European Union that respected none of what the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations called “the promises, commitments and assurances made during the [Brexit] referendum campaign and throughout the negotiations with the EU”.

And these were not any old promises and commitments. They were made publicly and at all levels in government, including by the Prime Minister himself.

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As he told the Scottish Fishermen's Federation in 2020, “let me reassure you that our sovereignty over our fishing waters, including the fundamental principle that we must control access in annual negotiations, is not up for discussion… we will not accept any proposals which compromise this”.

It is impossible to understate the scale of the betrayal; incredibly, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) left parts of the industry worse off in terms of quota availability than they had been under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). It will be for historians to decide whether that staggering outcome reflected incompetence at the top of government or stemmed from a hope that fishers would be too daft to notice.

As it happens, the usual response from government – we can rectify the situation in 2026, when the so-called adjustment period ends – begs the same question. Close examination of the TCA reveals the scope for changing any of the access and quota provisions after 2026 is extremely limited under any scenario short of abandoning it. All 2026 will bring is a painful reminder of how far and permanently fishers were betrayed in the one aspect of Brexit that should have been a resounding success.

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Incredibly, shamefully, that is not all. By limiting the UK’s freedom to determine who has access to its fishing grounds, for what and under what conditions, the TCA ensures Brexit created an impaired rather than a truly independent coastal state. Yes, the UK can exclude external fleets from its waters, but none flagged in the EU and, as the industry said during the Brexit talks, EU vessels take almost 60 per cent of the fish caught in UK waters.

But even an impaired coastal state can do something. The UK has the power to manage what fishing boats can and cannot do in its waters, and need only notify the EU of the changes it plans to make.

This is where the shameful bit comes in.

Despite their promises, neither the UK nor the devolved administrations have taken the opportunity afforded by leaving the EU to do anything differently. Not only is there an unwillingness to do anything to which the EU might object, there is a reluctance to depart from the CFP or EU practice. The draft Joint Fisheries Statement, a concept introduced in the UK Fisheries Act 2020, is little more than a lengthy re-statement of the CFP.

Like the UK and devolved governments that wrote it, it is entirely free of ambition and imagination.

If our fisheries were being managed perfectly, there would be no issue with that.

But our whitefish fleet is struggling with a catastrophically flawed ‘scientific’ process that ends up with quotas bearing no resemblance to the state of fish stocks; the industry is saddled with a discard ban that our government knows cannot work as intended; and there is no mechanism to limit the proliferation of certain gear types deployed by mainly EU vessels on already pressured fishing grounds, for example.

‘Business as usual’ was never more clearly evident than in the second half of 2021, when the UK’s negotiating positions on total allowable catches for stocks shared with the EU and Norway were derived in exactly the same way as they had been done in pre-Brexit days.

The UK’s asks, generally arrived at after discussion with the devolved administrations, were based on lamely following the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea’s advice even where this was based on a precautionary principle, rather than hard data, and even in cases where the scientific community itself acknowledged that assessments and/or modelling were deeply questionable.

Rather than temper the advice they were receiving with other sources of information, politicians instructed their negotiators to do exactly as they always had done. This meant ignoring the government’s responsibility to manage fisheries in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner (Article 1 of the Fisheries Act); this policy is aimed at defusing potential criticism of quota outcomes from multinational corporations posing as environmental NGOs.

In the same vein, the Scottish government has refused to limit gillnetting in Scottish waters, particularly around Shetland, despite having the powers to do so, repeated conflict between the vessels deploying this gear and local trawlers, and mounting evidence of cetacean bycatch in industrial gillnets.

Given that many of the gillnet vessels are owned by EU companies, local fishers would be forgiven for thinking the Scottish government’s desire to maintain close relations with EU member states has something to do with it.

Devolved administrations have the powers to manage our fisheries better and to do things differently, and all they can do is stumble through the same dreary processes and wield the same stale reasoning that characterise the CFP.

The fishing industry has infinitely more interest in sustainability and efficient management than the so-called greens seeking to destroy coastal and rural communities; our governments now have the opportunity to tap into the industry’s knowledge and ambition to develop a world-class industry out of low-carbon fish catching, but they refuse to take even timid steps down that road.

It may be that not much can be done about our 2020 betrayal. But the daily failure to deliver on pledges to manage fisheries differently to the way the CFP does it, could be righted today. Betrayal by omission is not much better than the other kind, especially when it is entirely avoidable.

Simon Collins is executive officer of Shetland Fishermen’s Association

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