Fishing – a step backwards

The British fishing industry – the present situation

The British fishing industry faces a worrying future, as it is not clear what will happen post-Brexit. However, even before we leave the EU, next year could see many vessels put out of business, losing the very people we need to rebuild the fleet and infrastructure once we leave the EU.

2018 brings the next stage of the EU’s discard ban into operation, resulting in fishermen having to stop fishing once they have caught the full complement of the species for which they have the least quota – known as the choke species. Some estimate tie-ups could start by the end of February and last for the rest of the calendar year. It doesn’t matter how much quota you have on others species. The rules state that as soon as the species with minimum quota is reached, you and your organization will be forced to lay up.

On top of that, the fisheries plans for Brexit itself are confusing, causing confusion and doubt. The one glimmer of light is that the Secretary of State Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Environment, Agriculture, Fisheries), the Rt. Hon. Michael Gove, whose brief covers three important areas of EU competency, made a flying start after taking this post in June, denouncing the London 1964 Fishery Convention, which will, in due course, keep foreign vessels out of our 6/12 nautical mile zone.

The past week has been encouraging with two oral question to the Prime Minister, and an excellent House of Commons Exit Committee session, (especially the first half), which took place on Wednesday 11th. October. It was good to get clarity from the four witnesses – Sir Stephen Laws, Sir Konrad Schiemann, Dr. Charlotte O’Brien and Professor Richard Ekins.

We in Fishing for Leave have maintained that when Article 50 terminates on 29th. March 2019, and the EU Treaties and Regulations cease to apply to the UK, we are out of the CFP. We then revert back to the 1976 Fishery Limits Act, and International Law – UNCLOS 3. However, from this Committee session came clarity that when the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, becomes an Act, it is this Act we revert back to, the Act that has brought all the EU acquis back into domestic legislation, including fisheries regulation 1380/2013, re-establishing the right for EU vessels to continue taking around 60% of our Nation’s marine resource.

The danger of this Bill comes not from taking on board into domestic legislation those EU Regulations which only operate internally within an individual country but rather those which deal with interfaces between different countries, like the CFP reglations. The witnesses to the committee made it clear that while article 50 takes us out cleanly of the EU, on 29 March 2019,  the EU (Withdrawal) Bill takes us back in with our parliament’s blessing if the repatriation of the aquis is tied to a “transitional deal” as proposed by Mrs May. For fisheries that means we would be back in the CFP, all bar name and we would remain under ECJ control for up to two further years.

The witnesses also expressed surprise that the withdrawal bill appeared not to cover the eventuality of no agreement being reached.

Given the deliberations of the Committee, we can now understand the context of two important oral questions put to the Prime Minister and her answers. The first was by Kate Hoey, on 9th.October 2017

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab)

The European Commission talks continually about the need for Her Majesty’s Government to provide certainty and clarity. Is there not one area in which we could provide that certainty and clarity very plainly, today and in our negotiations? Could we not make clear that in March 2019 we will withdraw from the common fisheries policy, take back all our fisheries, and ensure that our fishing communities actually take back control of who fishes in British waters?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Lady is right to suggest that when we leave the European Union one of the aspects of leaving it will be leaving the common fisheries policy. Of course, we will need to consider the arrangements that we want to put in place here in the United Kingdom for the operation of our coastal waters and the operation of fishing around them.

This does not answer the question regarding when we are going to be leaving the CFP. Will it be on 29th March 2019 as per Article 50? Also, what does Mrs May mean when she talks about our “coastal waters”?All very unsatisfactory.

Further questions were raised on 11th October:-

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

Is it the Prime Minister’s intention that the United Kingdom should remain part of the common fisheries policy during any transitional period after we leave the European Union? [900931]

The Prime Minister

When we leave the European Union, we will be leaving the common fisheries policy. As part of the agreement that we need to enter into for the implementation period, obviously that and other issues will be part of that agreement. But when we leave the European Union, we will leave the common fisheries policy.

This is a very confusing answer; which date are we leaving? By raising the subject of an implementation period it sounds as if it is to be later than the official Brexit date – 29th March 2019. Fishing is going to be part of the withdrawal agreement which means a final withdrawal treaty, which in turn brings in problems.

Then on the same day 11 October another oral question was asked by Mrs Sheryll Murray, the MP for South East Cornwall, as follows:-

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that once we leave the EU we will have total control over our internationally recognised fisheries limits, that fishermen from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England will benefit from any new management regime, and that this will not be bargained away during any negotiations?

Damian Green  (First Secretary of State and Minister for the Cabinet Office)

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that when we leave the EU we will be fully responsible under international law for controlling UK waters and the sustainable management of our fisheries. Through the negotiations we will of course work to achieve the best possible deal for the UK fishing industry as a whole.

This answer poses the question as to whether our Government understands our obligations under International law. If it did, you wouldn’t be taking about achieving “the best possible deal”. International law is clear; as far as fishing is concerned, it is the EU which has to ask for a deal, not the UK.

It was nine months ago when Fishing for Leave raised the issue of the Great Repeal Bill (now the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill) with the newly-created Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU). We were concerned about the Exit day being moved through domestic legislation. We have said all along it could bring a legal challenge on acquired rights, bogging us down for years, thanks to the Vienna Convention on Treaties. To this day, DExEU is dismissing this out of hand.

To play safe, just as Michael Gove did with the 1964 London Fisheries Convention, it would be a safer bet to exempt all fisheries regulations from the withdrawal bill.

All this may sound confusing and technical, but having spent over 50 years in the fishing Industry, one issue of which I am convinced is that new UK management system will be based on either the Icelandic model or Fishing for Leave’s model – i.e., Quota or effort limitation. If we go down the Icelandic model, our UK coastal communities will not benefit, and I would not like to sell that to the electorate. We are talking about a national resource, where all the people should benefit, not a few.

 

Hopefully it’s confusion rather than betrayal

Michael Gove’s comments to Danish fishermen about access to UK waters after Brexit have attracted some adverse criticism. We have not been provided with a full record of his actual words and it is quite likely he has been misquoted. Furthermore, he has only been in the job a few weeks and there is a lot of detail for him to take on board.

The same cannot be said for the Civil Servants of DEFRA, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who should know better, A statement by one of their spokesman is therefore far more of a cause for concern than Mr Gove’s comments in Denmark. The spokesman said:-

“Leaving the EU means we will take back control of our territorial waters. As we have always said, other countries will be able to access our waters – but for the first time in 50 years it will be on our terms and under our control…..We will allocate quotas on the basis of what is scientifically sustainable, making sure we have a healthy marine environment and profitable fishing industry in the UK.”

The fishing industry has always been concerned that the Government will only allow British vessels the exclusive use of the 12 nautical mile zone – in other words, out territorial waters. This is  what the DEFRA statement has indicated and the recent the Conservative manifesto said the same thing. Taking the DEFRA statement at face value, it would appear that arrangements regarding our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covering the area from 12 nautical miles up to 200 nautical miles/median line will continue as at present. This means that EU vessels will continue to take around 59% of the British people’s resource and the failed quota system will continue. Is this really what Mr Gove has in mind?

So why did the department use the word “Territorial”?

This is where confusion is creeping in. This doesn’t apply just to fishing but right across the whole range of Brexit-related issues. The public is stating to get restless and are wondering whether those at the top know what they are doing or else fear that they are deceiving us again. This is unhealthy, and proves once again the importance of detail.

Consequentially, Gove, probably for no fault of his own, will be under pressure now not only to explain his own comments but also the actions of his department. The burden on Gove’s shoulders cannot be exaggerated. The survival of the Government  – and indeed, the Conservative party – could rest in his hands. If the EEZ is traded away, then Brexit isn’t Brexit. DEFRA may state, “it will be on our terms and under our control”, but if the existing quota system of the CFP is used, the expected benefits will not materialise. Life after Brexit has to be a success for our fishing industry, not a continuation of the present story of decline.

The confusion stems directly from the DEFRA statement – “As we have always said, other countries will be able to access our water”. There is nothing wrong with these words as all free and independent fishing nations have reciprocal arrangements with their neighbours. Under international Law, UNCLOS3 article 62(2) states that if you haven’t the fishing capacity to take the resource, the amount you can’t catch can be given to your neighbours. The problem here is the civil servants will have advised Gove that we haven’t the capacity, whereas in reality we have.

The confusion centres around this word “Territorial.” UNCLOS3 has different rules for the territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles from the coastline and the Exclusive Economic Zone reaching out to 200 nautical miles/median line zone.

No one is saying that we should throw all EU vessels out on 30th March 2019, but no permanent rights must be given, only temporary transitional rights on a declining annual basis. What is vital, however, is that we need to know whether DEFRA is making the common mistake of using the term “Territorial waters”  when it actually means EEZ or whether it really does mean that we will only control the 12 nautical mile limit.

If so, it would be a shameful betrayal of our fishermen on a par with Fisheries Minister Peter Walker, who told Parliament in January 1983 – “the reality is that if the UK, instead of demanding anything like the historic proportions of Europe’s fish that it had caught, demanded a 200 mile limit and 50% or 60 % of Europe’s fish, that would mean the destruction of the fishing industries of most of our friends and partners in western Europe”.

Unfortunately the attitude that fishermen in other countries come before our own still prevails in some quarters. Thankfully, in Michael Gove, we have a person who has hit the deck running and is prepared to listen and learn. He has already shown in denouncing the London Convention  that he is someone who can and will take action. Ultimately, it is the job of civil servants to implement, not decide policy, so we can but hope that when Mr Gove really has his feet under the table that there will be a change of tone from DEFRA.

The way his Danish visit has been reported in the press will also underline to him how important it is for his department to issue clear, unambiguous statements, leaving no room for confusion over a very delicate subject.

A small step – the denunciation of the 1964 Fisheries Convention at last!

Within a week of taking up his new post as Secretary of State Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, has finally denounced the London 1964 Fisheries Convention. This is a small and welcome step towards Brexit, but one which should have been done at the same time as Article 50, as both require two years’ notice of termination. It means that unless we get a time extension to the Article 50 process, there will be a 3-month overlap.

The 1964 Convention was an agreement between the UK and some other European countries about fishing rights in each other’s waters. It was disadvantageous to UK fishermen and very beneficial to the French, possibly as a sop to General de Gaulle, who was not at all keen to see us join the European Community, with which we were currently in negotiations with at the time.

There are some grounds for saying it may make little difference as the Convention is vessel-specific and very few, if any, boats mentioned in the 1964 agreement are likely to be commercially active.

Of course, our membership of the EU has superseded it. Michel Barnier tweeted yesterday:-

UK denunciation of London Convention=no change: EU law/Common Fisheries Policy had superseded it. EU 27 interests=my priority for negs

This is a very telling. In one sense, Barnier is correct, as the detail of the Convention was transferred into EU regulation. On Brexit day, however, the regulation ceases to apply, and we revert to previous domestic legislation which, if it had not been denounced today, would have continued the right of access to our 6 to 12 nautical mile limit.

Note again, “EU 27 interests=my priority for negs.” Given that France gained most from the 1964 Convention, in any negotiations for a post-Brexit fishing settlement, you can expect France to demand access rights to fish in UK waters.

So while today’s move has cleared the way for UK control of our waters up to 12 nautical miles from the coast, there is still the question of control of our seas between 12 and 200 nautical miles (or the median point where the sea is less than 400 nautical miles wide). The Great Repeal Bill will repeal the European Communities 1972 Act, but at the same time will repatriate EU law into UK law – in other words, EU legislation will still be on our statute books but will take its authority from Westminster and not Brussels. This means that while Article 50 would take us out of the Common Fisheries Policy, the Great Repeal Bill, unless it excludes fisheries, would more or less take us straight back in again.

The separate Fisheries Bill will counter that, as long as it takes effect at exactly the same time as, or before, the Great Repeal Bill. If there is any overlap, this will result in huge problems of continuity and legal challenges.

As the time ticks away towards 30th March 2019, ministers need to remember the Kent Kirk case. This Danish skipper deliberately fished in UK waters to test the situation when there were uncertainties following the termination of a fisheries agreement without anything being put in its place.

Once we reach the end of the Article 50 period in March 2019, all EU treaties and regulations will cease to apply to the UK, and we revert to our own UK legislation. It is vital to sort out a fisheries policy before then and the timetable is short. Under Article 50, unless there is unanimous agreement among the 27 members to extend the two year period, we have 21 months left to achieve a withdrawal agreement. When you consider all that needs to be done in such a short space of time, it raises the question as to whether this is possible.

The EU is in the driving seat when it comes to determining the terms of withdrawal. The UK can say yes or no and even then, the Council and the European Parliament have a vote. While the EU is obliged by treaty to conclude a deal, it could make life so difficult that the UK either has to submit or say no.

However, circumstances have dealt us a strong hand as far as fisheries is concerned. If there is no fisheries agreement, no EU vessel will be able to fish in our waters. Given the French fishing Industry needs access to UK waters to survive, it will be putting a lot of pressure on the EU’s negotiators to fight hard on its behalf. It is vital that our side does not give in. Gove has thrown down the gauntlet and even today’s action has ruffled a few feathers. He will need to steel himself for a far worse reaction if he is to see this through to the bitter end and reclaim full control out to the 200 nautical mile/median point limit.

(See also this press release from Fishing for Leave)

The rise and possible demise of the SNP

Although the SNP came into being in 1934, it only achieved a modest degree of success until the two 1974 elections, when it grew from one parliamentary seat to seven and then eleven, including several seats in the North East of Scotland. In the next general election that area of Scotland went blue again and remained a Conservative stronghold until the 1987 election when the SNP took the Moray and Banff seats which it held for the next 30 years – often referred to as the Alex Salmond period.

The SNP unquestionably hit a peak in 2015, when it won all but three seats in Scotland. Two years later, however, the party lost two seats in the Moray Firth area while the Tories also took the prize scalp of Alex Salmond in the neighbouring seat of  Gordon.

At the start of Salmond’s parliamentary career he fully supported the fishing communities, just as those communities supported the SNP, both financially and with their votes.

For instance, here is an extract from Hansard where Alex Salmond brought in a private members Bill on Fisheries Jurisdiction:-

(756HC Deb 02 March 2004 vol 418 cc756-8)

Mr Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for withdrawal from the Common Fisheries Policy of the European Union; to amend the Fisheries Limits Act 1976; to make provision about the exercise of functions under that Act by Scottish Ministers, the National Assembly for Wales, Northern Ireland Ministers and the Secretary of State; to provide that that Act shall have effect regardless of the provisions of the European Communities Act 1972; to define Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish waters; and for connected purposes. The Bill is supported by hon. Members of all eight political parties that are represented in the Chamber, which is unusual for a politically controversial measure, and, more important, by every fishing organisation in the country, both offshore and onshore.

And as Scottish First Minister, he later said on 29th. May 2008, when answering a question from Karen Gillan:-

“No one seriously believes that the common fisheries policy has brought benefits to Scottish fishermen or fish stocks. We are committed to withdrawing from that damaging policy.”

However, by 2015, the SNP position had become more ambivalent.  In a Parliamentary debate on 10th September 2015, Sheryll Murray, the MP   for Cornwall South East, said:-

“I notice that there are some hon. Members from the Scottish National party present. If one of them makes a speech, perhaps they will clarify their policy, which I am confused about. In 2003 the SNP MEP Ian Hudghton said that equal access to a common resource was fundamental to the common fisheries policy, and that no one could change it. Yet I remember that in the early days of my involvement in fisheries policy Alex Salmond, who was then the Member for Banff and Buchan, promoted a private Member’s Bill to restore national control”.

The confusion continues to this day.  The SNP 2017 manifesto expressed a desire to re-join the EU while at the same time saying,

“We will continue, in all circumstances, to demand the scrapping or fundamental reform of the Common Fisheries Policy”

This statement is nonsense. You cannot re-join the EU if you advocate such a policy. Indeed, you would have thought that the SNP would have learned a lesson from the earlier Conservative demise in Scotland – you must not betray your core supporters. Yet this is exactly what they have done and the fishing communities have taken their vengeance. Salmond appears to think he will be back, but he will have to move well away from the coast. The Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has plenty of evidence to use against him if he tries to make a comeback. Anyone can access the Parliamentary documents of Hansard to read his statements.

On polling day Salmond looked grim and deservedly so. He needs to consider why he lost his seat.  For all those years he supported the fishermen, but then power went to his head to such an extent he stopped visiting his fishing supporters. Democracy has worked, but the Conservatives must take note too about what has happened. If they mess up the post-Brexit fishing policy, the Scottish Conservative bandwagon will quickly grind to a halt.

It is ironic that the talk over the past year or so has been about Scottish independence, and separation, but thanks in no small measure to the fishing communities, it is Scotland that has kept Mrs. May in a position to continue as Prime Minister of the UK.

Could fisheries prick the SNP’s bubble in Scotland?

The roots of the SNP lie in the coastal communities, especially the fishing communities that in the 1960s were safe Conservative seats. It was Edward Heath’s surrender of our fishing industry which  provided the impetus for SNP’s subsequent growth. Alex Salmond, the previous leader of the SNP, once put forward a private members Bill to take back control of UK fishing grounds of 200 nautical miles/median line zone during his first stint as a Westminster MP.

How times have changed! Power has gone to the SNP’s head and now they do not want to be in an union with the UK but want Scotland to be part of the Union of the EU.

But what would happen if, following Brexit, Scotland voted for independence and then re-joined the EU? The membership terms are unequivocal: Scotland would have to hand back her Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to the EU on the basis of equal access to a common resource without discrimination, and not increasing fishing effort.

Furthermore, the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy state that EU fishing capacity must be balanced to EU marine resource, and with the loss to the EU of the UK’s EEZ, even though Scotland would have its own EEZ, the loss of the English, Welsh and Northern Irish EEZs would result in the EU having to reduce its overall fishing capacity, but that reduced number of vessels would have to share in that reduced capacity – including Scotland’s EEZ.

So if the SNP were to take an independent Scotland back into the EU, it would result in a further decline in the Scottish fleet, finishing off the already devastated coastal communities that originally helped to create the SNP.

It does not end there. The territorial waters of 12 nautical miles come back to the coastal state through a transitional derogation which expires on 31st. December 2022 and would have to be renewed. With the rest of the UK out of the EU and our Accession treaty of 1972 (which was the main reason for the 12 mile derogation) now confined to history, why would the EU wish to offer a fresh derogation covering Scottish waters only? In other words, Scotland could find herself with the EU vessels fishing up to her beaches.

The SNP will huff and puff over this, saying they will negotiate, but there is no way out. These are the rules of EU membership. If, therefore, the SNP is so desperate to rejoin the EU, it would be at the cost of destroying the party’s roots.

The Conservatives, who are currently looking to become the main challengers to the SNP north of the border, would benefit immensely from including a clear fishing policy on the lines we have proposed in their manifesto. Who knows, it may enable them to recapture those seats they lost in the the 1960s and 1970s and tear the heart out of the SNP?