The NFFO takes stock 8 months after the Trade and Cooperation Agreement
There are some in the fishing industry whose trust in the Government has been irrevocably shattered. The fishing industry was given assurances from the top of government – the Prime Minister, senior cabinet ministers and Chief Negotiator himself, Lord Frost – that our industry would not be sold out in negotiations with Europe, as it had been by Edward Heath in 1973.
There was always a risk. Even when the fishing industry was used as the poster-child for Brexit, the NFFO paid for and distributed thousands of flags bearing the message: Fishing: No Sell-out.
In the event, on Christmas Eve 2020, another date that live in history for its infamy, fishing was sacrificed to secure a trade deal. The bald economic calculations laid waste to all the promises, assurances and commitments on fishing.
A few concessions on quota shares were made by the EU but these were miles away from what any self-respecting coastal state would consider fair, or consistent with its status under international law.
Under the terms of the TCA the UK didn’t even secure an exclusive 12 mile limit, something that most coastal states would automatically consider theirs by right, and essential for the sustainable management of their inshore fisheries . And is there anybody who truly believes that it will all be all right in 5 years time when the TCA access arrangements expire?
There is regulatory autonomy. This should allow us, over time, to diverge from the body of retained EU fisheries law – the CFP – and apply our own rules for operating in U.K. waters. These will apply to all fishing vessels irrespective of nationality. That is worth having and has the potential to be very significant over time.
The issue now is whether fishing, having lost our status as Brexit poster-child, has become a national embarrassment for the Government – a living symbol of failure to negotiate what is the UK’s by right and by international law of the sea. Will the government try to make amends for the way we have been treated, or seek to edge us off centre stage? The £100 million commitment made in the immediate aftermath of the TCA agreement suggests the former. The Government’s policy approach and insouciance towards the potential for displacement from marine protected areas and the expansion of offshore wind, suggest the latter.
The new Fisheries Act provides a framework for a new kind of fisheries policy – one in which the fishing industry is centrally involved in the design and implementation of fisheries management plans. Work is already under way, especially in the shellfish sector, where some of the elements of co-management can be seen at work in the Shellfish Industry Advisory Group and it’s important sub-groups covering crab/lobster, whelks and scallops. But will that cooperation survive if there is large scale displacement from customary fishing grounds with all the social and economic dislocation and unintended knock-on effects that implies?
This is another trust issue for the Government. Will fishing be treated fairly, carefully, and with respect, as an important component in this country’s food supply and for its export earnings and support for coastal communities? Or will there be further betrayals?
And then there is devolution; another sphere in which government concessions could come at our cost.
Annual fisheries agreements with Norway and Faeroes is a further area in which post-Brexit turbulence is manifest and where new equilibriums have yet to emerge.
We are about to enter negotiations for 2022, when all of these factors will be in play, along with the mother of all headaches on how to manage non-quota species. The Specialised Committee for Fisheries and annual negotiations will be of central importance but we have yet to see how this will function in practice.
This then is the broad political landscape for fishing after 8 months under the TCA. Through it all runs the core question of trust. As an industry we have little option but to make the best of it. The importance of working with our eyes open to the political currents and counter-currents has never been higher.