Following complaints from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark and Ireland, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has been asked to take a tough stance against the UK on fishing rights and access to UK waters. In particular, Barnier has been told to insist on Britain maintaining ‘common technical and conservation measures’, which, for all intents and purposes, would mean maintaining the same quotas, stringent regulatory controls and conservation measures currently applied under the hated Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Barnier has already caused controversy by telling the UK that if they want a free trade agreement with the EU they will have to allow “continued, reciprocal access to markets and to waters with stable quota shares.”

Scottish fishermen are fuming. They have told Boris Johnson that there must be no trade off of fishing rights in exchange for financial services, in a ‘fish for finance’ deal. They say that Brexit has given the UK an incontestable legal position as an independent coastal state, with full jurisdiction over its own seas. They argue that the EU’s reliance on access to our waters and their dependence on UK seafood exports puts them in a vulnerable position which Britain should exploit in trade negotiations. Scottish fishermen claim the Europeans are entering negotiations from a position of weakness and their tough talking is simply bluff and bluster. 

A forty-strong EU trade task force, reporting directly to Downing Street and led by David Frost, the Prime Minister’s key EU adviser, has taken over from the now defunct Department for Exiting the EU. With the transition period scheduled to expire on 31st December this year, time to secure a trade deal with Europe is short. The July 2020 deadline set for a fisheries agreement is even tighter and failure to meet it could impact the wider trade negotiations. The UK must therefore decide soon who should be allowed access to our waters and on what terms. If we crash out of the transition period with no deal, it could mean the imposition of customs duties (tariffs) on some seafood products exported to the EU, ranging from 7.5% to 15% for unprocessed fish. This would be a body blow to Scotland’s burgeoning fish export markets. There is also anxiety that new customs checks on seafoods will cost the industry up to £15 million annually and could lead to costly delays, which the processing and shellfish sectors in particular fear.

Boris Johnson knows that the fishing industry in Scotland is of much greater social, economic, cultural and even political importance than it is anywhere else in the UK. Although Scotland has only 8.4% of the UK population, over 60% of the UK’s total catch is landed in Scottish ports. The annual value of landings of around 445,000 tonnes of sea fish and shellfish to the Scottish economy is £573 million. Back in the 1970s, the Scottish fleet was landing over 300,000 tonnes of cod alone every year. But landings on this scale were wholly unsustainable. By the 1990s, cod stocks and indeed stocks of other key demersal species in the North Sea had all but collapsed. This was the reason why the EU’s unloved CFP was forced to introduce endless regulations and controls to try to save the industry. This was the reason why de-commissioning schemes encouraged many struggling skippers to scrap their vessels and why the number of vessels and the number of fishermen in Scotland more than halved.

With far fewer vessels and fewer fishermen, a profitable future beckons for the industry. But fishermen who are throwing their hats in the air in celebration of Brexit should beware. A return to the unsustainable fishing of the 1970s can never be allowed to happen again. Scotland’s fisheries sector should also take a long hard look at the challenges facing the industry after the end of the transition period. It is well known that 58% of the fish caught in UK waters – around 650,000 tonnes annually - is currently caught by foreign fishing vessels. We must not rub our hands together in gleeful expectation of chasing away all the foreigners and landing all of this catch ourselves. We have to find a market for these fish. We export thousands of tonnes of fresh fish to France, Spain, the Netherlands and other EU nations every week. Are those countries going to be happy to buy our fish if we have expelled their boats from UK waters or will they impose stringent tariffs to protect their own fishing fleets? The prevailing sense of euphoria in the industry needs a reality check. The CFP certainly had its flaws, but without it, there may have been no fishing industry left today.

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) represents around 400 vessels in the Scottish fleet. Its Chief Executive, Elspeth Macdonald, recently stated “To be clear, we have never said that we wanted to deny EU vessels the opportunity to fish in UK waters post-Brexit. Our consistent position has been that we want unfettered control over access. Then, as a coastal state, we can negotiate with the EU and others on an annual basis in international forums. This is what Norway, Iceland and Faroe – and indeed the EU itself – do. Over time this will allow the UK to obtain a much fairer share of the quota in its own waters than the 40% it is entitled to under the CFP.” These are wise words, though not entirely true. The annual EU-Norway negotiations are NOT about quota sharing and reciprocal access, they are about managing the shared stocks by deciding on the Total Allowable Catches (TACs) for these stocks and additional management measures, as well as the annual exchange of quota (the ‘balance’). The quota shares were decided in the ‘80s and have not changed since. 

If the UK has the ambition annually to negotiate and change the shares of the EU and the UK on the more than 100 stocks shared between the two blocs, as well as the access and management regimes for all these stocks, the negotiations will never end. 

David Frost and Michel Barnier need to resolve from the outset that we are not closing our borders to EU vessels. Fish do not recognise borders and we need to enter into flexible agreements that allow reciprocal access to each other’s fisheries. But access to UK waters has to be on our terms. We need to thrash out new rules under which we can all fish sustainably and harmoniously. Scottish fishermen want guarantees that Britannia will rule the waves and not that Britannia will waive the rules.