The people who will benefit most if European fishing boats are excluded from UK waters are already millionaires, a good few of them not even British. With negotiations on fishing rights expected to be among the most difficult of the forthcoming trade talks, the myth of the privation suffered by British fishermen needs to be dispelled. The image cultivated by Brexiteers of a domestic fishing industry denied its rights and oppressed by EU predators is very far from reality.
There is no one British fishing industry. It is impossible to find a common interest between the corporate owners of a £30m pelagic vessel chasing shoals of mackerel through the stormy waters of an Atlantic winter and the guy who sets out alone from his Cornish harbour for a day with his pots.
The former will be hoping for a post-Brexit deal that will lead to a very healthy commercial return from the catching of fish then denied to the vessels of other European nations. The latter, working inshore waters, will gain nothing at all, but should be concerned about possible disruption to the supply chain that helps him get a good price for his lobsters from his French customers.
Although most fishers supported Brexit, and issued clarion calls for Britain to go it alone, there are few sectors so dependent on trade. We import most of the fish we eat, and we export most of the fish we catch. The actual business of fishing is politically important but economically of little significance. With total landings of fish in the UK worth less than £900m annually, it is dwarfed by the processing sector that provides three times as many jobs and doesn’t mind who catches the fish.
Yet what is often overlooked is that, with some 4,700 active vessels, the British fleet is not only hugely diverse but also enormously profitable. Research for the European Commission reveals that in 2017, the UK fishing industry overall made a net profit of 26%, by some way the highest in Europe.
This is all the more astonishing given that 36% of the boats were only used part-time and had average landings of less than £10,000. Although 70% of the vessels in the fleet are under 12 metres in length and deploy only passive gear it’s clear that small scale doesn’t necessarily mean small profits.
But the real money is being made at the other end of the scale. Just 27 pelagic trawlers working from Scottish ports are responsible for half of the total weight of landings. There are 13 companies holding 60% of the UK’s quota, with a number of them foreign-owned by Dutch and Spanish interests among others.
The private ownership of rights to catch fish that are a public resource has come about not through the EU but as a result of British government policy over the decades. For fisheries management, it’s an approach that has some merit but it has also concentrated influence and generated huge wealth for a few.
Brexiteers demand that EU vessels should now be excluded from “our” waters. Not surprisingly our European neighbours are less than keen because they have always fished these seas. Even the Vikings dragged nets behind their longboats when they made their frequent visits to our shores.
The concept of a 200-mile exclusive area was a very late idea inspired by the Cod Wars with Iceland and quickly superseded by our EEC membership. Current shared arrangements between national fishing fleets reflect the actual situation that existed in the 1970s.
The UN’s Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), agreed in 1982, confirmed the right of an independent coastal state to fish exclusively up to 200 miles from its shore. Britain has now gained this status and with international law on its side it can exclude all other boats, but no-one is expecting this to be the outcome of the negotiations.
It’s likely that a compromise agreement will allow the UK to catch some more fish while the quota for other countries will be reduced, if only marginally. This would benefit a handful of independent skippers, but by far the largest gains would be made by the big players.
We can expect vessels registered with other European countries and fishing today in UK waters to be brought into their fold and re-registered as British. The true economic benefit will not extend far beyond the profits of the corporate owners. The rich will grow richer and ever more influential.
It’s the small-scale fishers who have been the pin-up darlings of the Brexiteers. Their experience, exaggerated and distorted, has been used as a weapon to promote hostility towards the EU. Yet in truth their fate has always depended on decisions made on this side of the Channel.
While catch limits for each stock have each year been set at the December meeting of EU fisheries ministers, the sharing out of opportunities between the large and small-scale fleets has always been a national matter.
If the distribution is unfair then that is the fault not of policymakers in Brussels but of those in London, and in recent decades of those also in Edinburgh. Whatever the hopes of small-scale fishers nothing in the Brexit deal will change that.
Chris Davies was a Liberal Democrat MEP and chair of the European Parliament’s fisheries committee.