Plenty more fish in the sea?: UK Fisheries after Brexit

Toby Roxburgh/2020VISION

It’s 2019, we have completed Brexit and our fishermen are looking out over British seas no longer governed by the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and are imagining a return to a golden age of British boats returning to port loaded down with British fish and seafood, writes Tim Ferrero, Fisheries Officer at The Wildlife Trusts.

I love eating fish and seafood, and over the years, I’ve done my bit, both to eat local seafood and in more varieties than most, including sea anemones, sea squirts and a striking type of spoon worm I ate once in Korea called a “fat innkeeper worm” (only to discover, quite recently, it’s also known as the “penis fish”).

The idea of diverse, locally caught and most importantly, sustainable fish and seafood is also attractive to me, but is the prospect of Brexit fisheries one which could achieve this vision? Could it succeed where other ways of governing our fisheries have failed and how does it answer the problems we currently face, of decimated fish stocks and damaging fishing methods?

Most fish in EU waters have ranges which cross many national boundaries

We already control our inshore fisheries out to six nautical miles, but after Brexit we’ll have complete control of all our international waters, extending to 200 nautical miles in those places where we don’t have to meet other countries halfway. It is very tempting to think that the fish in our waters are somehow "UK fish", but this is perhaps the biggest challenge for fisheries management now and in the future. Most fish in EU waters have ranges which cross many national boundaries. Throughout the year fish may pass through, breed or have significant nursery grounds there, or they may be stocks that have bred elsewhere in EU waters.

Sunfish

Sunfish ©Pete Mills

Consequently, stocks we fish are also fished by other countries in their waters, perhaps at a different time of year or at a different stage in the fishes' life cycles. We might want to draw a circle around our fish, but neither the fish nor anyone else would take much notice.

Inside the EU, fish stocks are managed and quotas set across the entire EU Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), with different countries agreeing to fish different amounts of stocks in different sea areas after a complicated and sometimes highly charged series of annual negotiations

Once we have left the EU, the UK may still have to be part of these negotiations, to make sure that stocks are maintained within and outside our waters; this may well mean continuing to allow fishing by other countries in our waters in exchange for access to stocks outside UK waters. British boats already fish across the European EEZ and beyond, and we can’t expect to exclude non-British vessels from our waters and not be treated in the same way.

Spiny lobster

Spiny lobster ©Dominic Flint

We could decide to adopt the same approach as the CFP; this would be the simplest solution and after years of struggling to prevent stocks declining, the new, revised CFP has begun to show signs of success. Some stocks are recovering and there is a complete ban on wasteful discarding of fish coming in to force. There is even a commitment to stick to the scientific advice on how much fish to catch – the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) - which for years has been overruled in favour of political pressures.

We could be more like Norway, which sets its own quotas, has had a discard ban for years and controls access to its own waters, but still negotiates an annual agreement with the EU. This could allow us to act more quickly on fishing at levels recommended by scientific advice, or even choose to be more cautious and allow stocks to recover more quickly.

Edible sea urchin

Edible sea urchin ©Polly Whyte/Earth in Focus

We could even decide to go it alone, excluding everyone else from our waters and managing our own fish stocks. This would involve us breaking other international conventions which have nothing to do with the EU, and would also leave us open to fish stocks being over-exploited somewhere else. This could affect markets for our British seafood exports.

For people, like me, who are concerned about the health of our oceans, their habitats and diversity of life, the main issue is that although our fisheries are relatively small in scale compared with other industries and historic levels, they can have a disproportionately significant impact on marine habitats and species.

We need to get the best for the marine environment. This will ensure, in the long run that we can achieve sustainable and productive fisheries whilst allowing our seas to recover from the harm done in the past and become better able to adapt to all the challenges of the future.