Will the UK Deliver on Its Post-Brexit Fishing Promises?

Bill could help country—and EU—achieve sustainable fisheries

Will the UK Deliver on Its Post-Brexit Fishing Promises?
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The UK government has long said it wants to become a “world leader” in fisheries management and, following the publication of the draft UK Fisheries bill on 30 January, decision makers have a chance to achieve that. But doing so will require firm commitments. The bill presents an opportunity for the UK to show it has learned lessons from good and bad fisheries management around the globe and will move toward sustainable stewardship of its fish stocks, many of which are still being overfished.

UK leaders already had opportunities to learn from their unsuccessful attempts over the past two years to agree this legislation. The first draft of the bill, proposed in October 2018, was pre-empted by a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs press release praising the legislation for its sustainability provisions and inviting journalists to write about this element of the story before they’d seen the text.

Unfortunately, the text did not match that rhetoric: the bill would have created a flexible “framework” for fisheries decisions but few binding requirements, and would have left much of the UK’s fishing policies to be determined later at the discretion of future secretaries of state.

The new bill, published on 30 January—and promoted with the same advance press release tactic—includes improvements in some areas but also repeats many of the same flaws. It strengthens objectives and mechanisms to achieve sustainability fishery by fishery or stock by stock and maintains the objective to restore stocks to productive levels—mirroring the goals of the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy. But the legislation also has a worrying lack of clarity on the annual controls on fishing pressure needed to achieve this. Rather than stating a clear requirement to fish sustainably each year, the bill includes a complex structure of sometimes optional “management plans” that may or may not achieve the objective stock by stock.

The message from ministers still seems to be that the UK government might need flexibility to fish some stocks unsustainably in some years, so this is a critical area in which the wording needs to be tightened. After all, ending overfishing will benefit people—including the fishing industry—and fish stocks in the long term. And, in fact, continued overfishing will end up hurting the industry more than any other stakeholder, so it is in fishing and seafood companies’ best interests to support policies that lead to sustainability.

As decades of fisheries management confirm, an official policy of “trust us” doesn’t work. Successful fisheries managers, including in the US, drove down overfishing, restored stocks, and restored high-yield fisheries by setting binding limits into law and sticking to them. Elsewhere, broad intentions to recover stocks at some point in future decades, in the absence of limits on fishing pressure, deliver the opposite outcomes with decades-long recovery timelines.

And the “trust us” approach has led to EU policymakers publicly agreeing to bold stock recovery objectives while meeting behind closed doors each December to set unsustainably high catch limits for the next 12 months.

This failure to safeguard fish populations and the fisheries that rely on them is not because ministers are uniquely ineffective or because unregulated, unreported, or illegal fishing is happening over the horizon. It’s not even because of climate or chemistry changes in the water, although none of these things help. It’s because ministers are under huge political pressure to reject cuts to fishing limits and secure increases in catches the following year. Worsening overfishing becomes a very real risk if the UK and EU also disagree on their relative shares of each fishery during their talks in the coming year(s).

It’s not too late for parliamentarians in the UK to improve the bill by inserting a requirement to limit fishing pressure each year to the scientifically determined maximum sustainable level, itself an unambitious safeguard. Or require genuine ecosystem-based management that would address the looming productivity decreases and changing distribution of stocks that scientists anticipate as climate change affects fisheries around the UK. At the very least, the bill should emulate other successful fisheries management regimes, such as the US system, by requiring recovery of depleted stocks in a specific time frame.

The UK will still share management of many stocks with the EU and Norway. To deliver the “world leading” fisheries management it has promised, the UK will need to demonstrate leadership in its own waters and among its local partners first.

Andrew Clayton directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to end overfishing in North-Western Europe.

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