Time to Stop Posturing

News

A recent event in Lorient, Brittany, provided some insight into the main themes in post-Brexit fishing relations. The seminar mainly involved French fishing industry figures and fisheries administrators, with a smattering of other EU notables and a handful of participants from the UK fishing industry, including the NFFO.

The ITECMER Conference, Lorient, 8th October 2021, was not large and attracted limited publicity. Nevertheless, the event probably presents a more reliable weather-vane for the future than the current media coverage of fisheries relations where the word war tends to be rather overused.

Not that the conference ducked the difficult issues that lie between France and the UK as we navigate the transition to a new relationship on fisheries. Time was spent hearing about the wide range of practical and political challenges faced by vessel operators on both sides of the Channel.

Evolving Perceptions

Perceptions in France seemed to have evolved from an initial jubilation that the TCA had maintained the CFP status quo in all important respects. Access to UK waters, including the UK 6-12m zone had been maintained. Adjustments to quota shares had been relatively minor (Ireland takes a different view). The European Commission is confident that the TCA has enough dissuasive powers to prevent any radical departures after 2026. This is all as it should be, from the French perspective because, after all, French vessels have been fishing in what is now the UK EEZ for generations, if not centuries.

Ten months into the TCA, a slightly different perspective has emerged. The UK had retained tariff free access to the important market EU for fisheries products (albeit with substantially increased costs and bureaucracy) but negotiations for the first UK/EU fisheries agreement had been prolonged and painful. The delay in agreeing a mechanism for in-year quota swaps had been particularly harmful all round. The terms of the TCA on the granting of fishing licences contained clauses that had perhaps not been immediately understood when the deal was signed on 24th December and were now an area of noisy dispute. Above all, the UK now has regulatory autonomy and has signalled its intention to use those new powers to gradually move away from those aspects of the CFP where this makes sense. There is a nervousness in France about what this will mean.

By contrast, on Christmas Eve, the fishing industry in the UK had immediately understood that (in an echo of 1973) our government had prioritised a trade deal over fishing rights. It was clear right away that the outcome would be very different from the promises made by those at the top of government. We would not have what other coastal states take for granted under international law. We would not have an exclusive 12m zone to protect our inshore fisheries. Quota shares would not reflect the resources in our waters.

Adjustments to quota shares had been marginal (with, the exception of mackerel), leaving areas of acute quota shortage unaddressed, for example Eastern Channel cod, where the UK share is 9% and the French share is 84%. Putting everything together and projecting forward to 2026, a recent analysis conducted on behalf of the NFFO suggested that in contrast to Government claims that we would be as an industry £148 million better off by 2026, we will in fact be £300 million worse off, unless things change in the interim.

Both sides have learnt, if we didn’t know it before, that there can be a large gulf between politicians’ rhetoric and reality, especially if there is a referendum or presidential election looming.

The Past

Leaving aside quota shares and access, which as a zero-sum game, can only be about different winners and losers, in fact French and UK fishers share an extensive history of cooperation. When faced with the monolithic blunt power of the Common Fisheries Policy, over the years French and British fishermen found many ways to cooperate and where necessary, to resist the Commission.

The Mid-Channel spatial agreement between mobile and static gears is a longstanding area of mutual dialogue and cooperation. The UK was a leading member of the EU regional advisory councils. Especially in the early days of the RACs, there was a remarkable level of industry-to-industry cooperation and the expression shared views. The European Fishing Action Group in the early 1990s was also a strong alliance led by the French and British fishing organisations which mounted a united opposition to the Commission’s blunt proposal on effort control. It wasn’t successful but all its arguments have been subsequently vindicated.

Unity came in the face of external threats, and bonds of affection and respect followed.

Faced with external threats much was achieved through dialogue and cooperation.

The Future

There is no crystal ball which can tell us what the future holds. The UK holds the legal status of an independent coastal state, with the right to manage the fisheries in its EEZ.

Big Power Politics are, however, unlikely to go away and have been shown to constrain and limit those rights considerably. Aside from managing this central relationship, there are massive joint challenges ahead including:

  • Displacement of fishing activities from the areas designated for offshore windfarms and other renewables
  • The Green Lobby which has taken different forms at different times and not all NGOs are the same. In recent years, however, many NGOs have abandoned any semblance of a cooperative approach and have shown their aggressive, legalistic, anti-fishing side. Many of these organisations have access to very expansive funding
  • Marine Protected Areas which have an important role to play but applied badly will have a huge displacement effect of fishing that has not been properly understood. 38% of UK waters are now designated as MPAs of one kind or another
  • Climate change and shifting patterns of fish distribution raise challenges for the relevance of current management measures and the way the industry operates
  • Instability: The gulf between the UK’s legal status as a coastal state and the provisions of the TCA mean that fishing rights are likely to be a source of friction for decades ahead. Any sober assessment will recognise that they will always have the potential to be weaponised by politicians.
  • Managing non-quota stocks presents the mother of all challenges and will require careful consideration and handling

All of these challenges are faced by the fishing industry whether the vessels operate out of ports in the UK or in France.

Realities

As we find a way forward in these changing and uncertain circumstances there are a number of realities that ought to anchor the debate on our future relationship:

  • We share over 100 stocks. Cooperation is not just a legal requirement under UNCLOS, it is an existential obligation – if we fail to manage exploitation, we are all losers – that is a powerful incentive to find ways to cooperate despite the areas of friction
  • The combined effect of offshore wind, MPAs, and an aggressive well-funded (but not necessarily very well informed) environmental lobby has the potential to generate massive displacement and disruption to fishing unless a much more measured and intelligent way can be found to co-exist

We have found ways to cooperate in the past. The aim should be to find a new equilibrium that respects our legitimate interests whilst recognising that the world has changed and will continue to evolve. A priority should be to find means through which that dialogue at industry level can be maintained. There are dangers in using politicians as a conduit and megaphone diplomacy, where only the loudest get heard. Direct dialogue is a strong antidote to those risks.

Licences

The current area of dispute is over the criteria for granting licences to fish within the UK 6-12 zone. The TCA is in fact quite clear that licences will only be granted to vessels which can demonstrate a historic record of fishing there. And vessels should be replaced like-with-like to prevent a backdoor expansion of fishing activity in biologically sensitive areas. There is no mystery over why this is contentious. Sound fisheries management requires, as its very basis, that access to any given fishery must be limited. That requires hard administrative and political choices. Capping the UK domestic under-10m fleet over a decade ago generated a similar outcry over evidence and the impact on those whose fishing rights were reduced. The claims for licences, now like then, will involve a mix of legitimate borderline cases which hangs on the types of evidence available and a good spread of opportunists. Separating the wheat from the chaff and finding a fair methodology is best done through quiet dialogue and far from excitable politicians with the next election uppermost in their minds

Lorient

The Chairman of the Lorient event summed up the conference perfectly. Everyone must stop posturing.

The fishing industry has nothing to gain and much to lose by the posturing surrounding the implementation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Posturing by the UK Government on fishing rights, may have bought it votes in the referendum and general election, but it has left us with a TCA that ditches most of the characteristics of an independent coastal state. Posturing by the French Government and the more excitable parts of the French fishing industry have led to wild threats about a trade war and stopping electricity supplies that would be disproportionate and incompatible with the TCA.

A sense of proportion and any consideration of where such steps would lead seem to have been left far behind. We know from experience that in these circumstances parts of the media will amplify any area of dispute in fisheries until it is almost unrecognisable. Social media has the same effect. Those at the sharp end of the industry, operating fishing vessels under difficult and uncertain conditions will not thank us for such distractions.

The Lorient conference was a good antidote to wild talk and unnecessary divisions.