Less than two months before the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union, the outlook for one of the iconic policy areas of the British debate—fishing—remains uncertain. Without clarity on if or when the European Union and U.K. will finalise deals on withdrawal and future trade, or on what happens if they don’t, it is hard to know Brexit’s ultimate impact on fisheries management.
I wrote about the opportunities and risks that Brexit presents for U.K. fisheries policy nearly two years ago. While the opportunities continue to take shape, the risks remain—namely that watering down the policy could lead to continued overfishing. However, the U.K. government clarified its ambitions for fisheries management last year, through a white paper and a draft Fisheries Bill—one of the important pieces of pre-Brexit legislation that Parliament is considering.
The draft Bill is an achievement in itself: The U.K.’s fishing laws have been limited in scope during the country’s membership in the EU and unpicking 40 years of EU legislation to craft U.K. laws is a mammoth task. The Bill attempts to balance some conflicting priorities, for example providing continuity on the first day the U.K. ceases to be subject to the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), while asserting and implementing newly repatriated U.K. powers and policies. This is a tricky balancing act, and Parliament is testing the proposed policy against the government’s stated ambition for the U.K. to be a “world leader” in fisheries management as well as against the ambitious July 2018 white paper that committed the U.K. to “setting a gold standard for sustainable fishing around the world.”
It is against these ambitions that many parliamentarians and outside experts have found the Bill lacking. The Bill broadly focuses on the powers that U.K. decision makers must assume from the EU after Brexit but does not offer detailed policy. And the limited detail on how those powers should be used already sends worrying signals that the U.K. has discarded the ambitions it set out in the white paper.
Further, by omitting constraints on ministers’ annual decisions on fishing pressure, the draft Bill would water down a critical sustainability provision that had been lifted from the CFP. That omission followed a consultation in which the majority of respondents supported sustainable fishing. However, fishing industry organisations asked lawmakers for a “more general commitment” than the one in the CFP; in drafting the legislation, the U.K. government presumably was responding to industry feedback but has not fully explained its actions.
Removing the CFP commitment from U.K. law would leave the country aiming lower than the EU provisions it fought to secure in the reformed CFP six years ago. Instead, in order to help fish stocks recover, the Bill must require that catch limits be based on scientific advice; otherwise, unsustainable fishing will be able to continue indefinitely in U.K. waters.
Without the constraints on annual decisions, fisheries ministers remain susceptible each year to short-term pressure to allow overfishing, which recent history shows is bad for fish stocks and the future of fisheries. Undercutting the existing CFP aims also would make it harder for the U.K. to agree on shared management measures with the EU and for the U.K. to achieve its international obligations under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Two other factors make removing the constraints on annual decisions risky. One is that the U.K. government expects a bigger share of fishing quota than it currently receives as a member of the EU, raising expectations that the U.K. fleet will gain the right to land hundreds of thousands of tonnes more fish. The renegotiation of shares of fishing quota between the U.K. and EU member states brings an inherent risk of disagreements over those shares between the U.K. and EU, which could lead to overfishing, as was the case in recent disputes over mackerel catches that have contributed to overfishing and the suspension of that fishery’s sustainability certification. For one party to signal it could fish stocks harder than is currently allowed while also seeking higher shares compounds the risks of overfishing.
The second factor is that the U.K. government has also indicated its willingness to explore replacing quotas with limits on the number of days vessels can spend at sea. The evidence points to this approach being hugely detrimental, a deregulatory backward step that would emulate some of the world’s worst performing fish management systems.
Far from being a gold standard, these proposals to allow higher fishing pressures or remove quota controls could reverse the progress the U.K. has made to improve fisheries management, potentially undermining the already painfully slow progress the EU is making toward ending overfishing.
Legislators in the U.K. now have a chance to improve the Bill through parliamentary deliberations. In light of the timetable for the U.K.’s departure from the EU—and whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiation—these improvements are increasingly urgent if the U.K. government’s stated sustainability ambitions are to be realised.
Andrew Clayton directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to end overfishing in North-Western Europe.