While reading through the summary of the UK-EU TRADE AND COOPERATION AGREEMENT published last week you can’t help pausing for thought when going through page 24 where the heading ‘Fisheries’ is.
Fishing is a risky enough business; the pay is hardly lucrative and there will always be much pressure on the skippers of trawlers to come home with a full hold of fish.
While the UK departs from the EU Common Fisheries Policy there has been a period of horse trading but, an agreement has been concluded where compromise between parties was the key to help move the rest of the trade agreement across the line. The deal struck by the UK means 25% of the EU quota will be handed over to the UK fisherman over five years. This is a meaningful part of the annual catch and Irish fisherman are already campaigning to see if they can also be gifted a comparable share of their fish stocks.
Overfishing and Environmental Damage
In the main fishing is an environmental damaging activity. All species are being overfished, dolphins are being caught up in nets and industrial high-tech fleets are emptying our oceans so there is next to nothing left for wild life. The method of beam trawling is so destructive that it is estimated that for every 1lb of marketable fish which is caught by this method 16lb of marine life has been killed.
Professor Paul Kemp from the University of Southampton advises governments and NGOs on fisheries management and is hopeful that the Covid 19 pandemic coupled with the UK now legislating for fishing in UK waters means there can be a recovery in UK fish stocks.
In July 2020 he said, “Brexit divided the UK and the whole world has been challenged by the global health pandemic”. “However, regardless of how people voted, UK politicians have the chance to bring people together over a common goal that supports fishing communities, wider society and environmental sustainability. The opportunity is there but it will require political vision; with the necessary strength of character the negotiators can deliver a positive outcome from the combined systemic shocks of Brexit and COVID19.”
In a desperate grab to push through the whole trade deal both sides focussed on the current quotas rather than consider an outcome where marine life exploitation could be further limited.
Less than 50% of fish landed in the UK are from sustainable stocks. Globally less than 3% of stocks are under exploited. Other environmental issues like the excessive cost in green house gases of trawlers travelling further and having to trawl deeper has a notable contribution to global warming. In the UK the fuel subsidies for fishing vessels also mean vessels can afford to steam further afield to find a catch; adding to the increased amounts of fuel burnt.
The fishing industry relies on an element of honesty for regulation as the Royal Navy having just doubled the number of patrol boats to 8 still cannot be expected to cover the whole of the global Exclusive Economic Zone, which the UK has jurisdiction over; around 6,000,000km2 at any time. They have other work detailed to them like following Russian submarines and ensuring the safety of trading routes around the globe.
Unlike criminal activities on the mainland the fishing industry does not appear to be encompassed by the proceeds of crime act. Instead vessels and companies caught breaching quotas are to be heavily fined.
The pelagic fishing vessel Fraserburgh UK-registered Christina S, the same 72m trawler which Nigel Farage boarded when sailing up the Thames in 2016 is a good example of a case where quotas were ignored.
The owner, Ernest Simpson, and his son Allan were given one of the largest fines in 2012, £130,000 in total, after they were found to have landed undeclared fish – through so called black fishing - at a processing plant in Peterhead. There are also recorded cases since where fishing companies from Spain and Holland have been fined millions and indeed allowed to keep the catch.
The fines act as a deterrent but they also might just be a hazard of illegal fishing where the consumer picks up the bill with an increase in the price of fish. The offending trawlers are allowed to put to sea again and slowly earn back the money they lost in fines.
The largest trawlers fishing the UK waters don’t broadcast their GPS positions to the public in real time like cruise liners do. They do use automatic identification transmissions for safety purposes. In fairness, they may not want to advertise what catch they are chasing so competitors do not join in any bonanza but, they also really do not need any fisheries protection vessel sneaking up behind them, boarding and checking the ship’s log against what fish they have stashed in the hold.
Saying that if a transponder is shut off on one side of a marine protection zone and turned back on when emerging out of the zone this would set off alarm bells with fisheries protection agencies.
The EU can investigate registered ships turning off their position transponders, but it is still a widely acknowledged practice for ships to do so.
We cannot assume that that the UK government can police UK waters in the interest of conservation and public environmental concerns. Like the issue of air quality, which Southampton residents are now all too aware of, the Government historically waits to be dragged through the courts before doing something.
In 2015 Green Peace successfully won a case in the European courts against the UK Government. The court decided the government of the UK was not implementing Article 17 of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which requires member states to allocate quotas according to transparent and objective criteria along environmental, social and economic lines.
UK fishing stocks and marine habitat is hardly likely to recover in the immediate future.
In leaving the EU the only court left for organisations to take our Government to court, or indeed a local authority if needed, is the High Court. So any judgment concluded against the government generally means ministers have to draw up a plan to rectify their lack of concern over an issue. The new plan doesn’t necessarily have to have proven success; it is just that an effort to do something has to be proven. The European Courts had slightly more clout in that they could fine our government for flouting EU law.
It will be surprising if in ten years’ time the UK points to 2021 as a defining date where the UK turned a corner and that our fishing industry expanded to the extent there are jobs for people to join the crew of trawlers, and sailing out of Southampton. In a decade’s time it is more likely that another species becomes critically endangered as is the common skate and people will come to realise that plundering the sea of life is not an ethical and environmental activity.