Maritime borders have always been difficult to police—and the challenge only increases under the surfaceby Maria Damanaki / June 20, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: Twelve things you need to know about Brexit
What impact has the European Union had on both the fishing industry and the dwindling stocks of fish? Last week, UKIP leader Nigel Farage led a flotilla of fishing boats up the River Thames in a protest over EU common fisheries policy.
In reply, “Remain campaigner” Bob Geldof—who took to the waters to challenge the Brexit-backing flotilla—claimed that Britain makes more money than any other EU member from fishing and has the second largest quota for fish in Europe after Denmark.
Fisheries raise fundamental questions about sovereignty, how we share common resources and the future of small, sometimes remote communities. Few people are aware of how EU regulation affects the fishing industry, but many of Britain’s fishermen want to leave. What would Brexit do for us and them?
Maritime borders have always been difficult to police. The challenge only increases under the surface. Mackerel, herring, cod and other species travel from other countries’ waters into Britain’s and back again, without regard for anyone’s sovereignty. This means that to protect British fisheries, we have to find a way to police foreign vessels that are beyond the reach of British law.
This requires international agreement. Before the Common Market, by and large, most vessels fished in their own waters. However, when Britain joined in 1973 there was a risk that French, Spanish and Norwegian boats might invade our waters and destroy the catch—and vice versa. The result was the development of European fisheries policy that aimed to co-ordinate regulation, while granting rights for all EU fishermen to have access to member states’ waters. The first Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) came into force in 1983.
As part of the development of fisheries policy in the 1970s, the sea was re-mapped. Up to 12 miles from a nation’s shores were reserved for that country’s fishermen, and a zone stretching from there to 200 miles from the zone was open for all EU boats to access. Meanwhile, the size of the European catch of some species was limited to ensure stocks became sustainable, and each country restricted to a share of the overall limits.
The freedom to roam has helped many fishing businesses stay afloat. However, employment in fishing has steadily fallen since the policy was introduced—in the UK from 21,000 in 1970 to 12,000 in 2014. The trend is similar across Europe, with even steeper falls in Spain, Portugal and Italy. The British fleet, working in ports from Cornwall to Shetland, has performed relatively well. The industry’s gross profits in 2014 were £243m, the highest in the EU, with margins at 35 per cent. Nevertheless, many fishing communities continue to experience tough times.
Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, however, these communities cannot return to the past. Improvements in technology such as sonar have dramatically increased the ability of a single boat to catch a huge amount of fish. The former randomness of fishing has become a production process that involves far fewer fishermen. In the past, fish were caught too fast for stocks to recover, increasing job losses.
The policy response from Brussels, as in London, has been mixed, and the CFP is far from perfect. At one time the policy encouraged building more fishing boats than were needed, while political bargaining led to higher catch sizes than the scientific evidence allowed, decimating some stocks. Most countries’ industries remain loss-making, and EU subsidies for fishing still amount to around £800m a year.
There have been many attempts to reform the CFP to make it more effective. Britain in particular has pushed hard over the years and made a big contribution to the latest redesign, which came into force in 2014. One of the most important changes was the phasing out of discarding unwanted fish at sea. This could not have happened without a campaign by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall.
The 2014 reforms also introduced tighter controls on overfishing. The result is that the health of fish stocks such as cod, haddock and hake is improving. As we look to the future, the policy will require fishermen to land 95 per cent of what they catch, and quotas will be brought more into line with scientific advice. All these measures will help to ensure that there will be enough fish to keep fishermen in business and put food on people’s plates.
Massive challenges remain. The Mediterranean and Northeast Atlantic sea bass are still being fished as intensively as before. The numbers of fishermen and boats in many countries are still higher than the industry can support. A vote to remain will mean these would be tackled within the framework of the CFP, a known quantity.
If Britain were to leave, it would most likely follow the Norwegian model. Norway has a fisheries agreement with the EU, allowing fishermen from Norway and the member states to fish in one another’s territorial waters, subject to quotas. If Britain left the EU, it would have to reach new agreements with both Norway and the EU.
The big risk is that, without agreements, the industry would become a political football and a beggar-thy-neighbour approach would see fish stocks collapse. But with its great chunk of the European seas, and since its neighbours are likely to be reasonable, Britain could probably achieve a fair deal—albeit possibly after several years of uncertainty.
There lies the challenge with the referendum. The choice is between the status quo and indeterminate gains at the negotiating tables—probably in Brussels. For fisheries, each campaign must spell out clearly its vision for the industry’s future. Fishing communities and all those who love the sea, deserve to know more.
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