Things might start getting a little interesting on the fisheries front sometime soon, as the Fisheries Bill, having completed all its stages in the House of Lords on 1 July, was sent to the Commons for its first reading on 2 July and is now due for its second reading.
With parliament not due to go into recess until 22 July, it is likely that the Bill will get its debate before MPs break for the summer, at which point we might see the colour of the government’s money – as to what precisely its intentions are.
This, of course, is the second attempt at a Bill, the first one having had its second reading in the Commons on 21 November 2018 then having fallen with the early general election.
And, although at the time, Michael Gove was highly complimentary about the Bill (claiming that DEFRA has some of the finest civil servants in the Government, but the fisheries team stand out), the Bill was a total dog’s dinner and is currently only marginally improved, with the addition of a duty to create fisheries management plans (curiously absent from the first version).
At 117 pages, it is a fairly lengthy Bill, but it should not be mistaken for a fisheries policy. Basically, it is a mixed bag (a jumble, even) of miscellaneous powers and obligations, with no sign of a unifying theme that would suggest that its authors had got anywhere near creating an effective management system (or systems).
We actually saw a White Paper published in July 2018, under the title “Sustainable fisheries for future generations”, which rather explains why the Bill is such a mess, as the document confuses itself into believing that a bag of tools and a bunch of woolly aspirations actually constitutes a policy.
Not least of the problems though, is that any policy which eventually evolves must be closely tied into the negotiations with the EU over access for EU Member State flagged fleets and since there has been very little progress on that front, it is hard to see what can be achieved.
However, it is clear to see that the basic mistakes that have dogged the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, with its application of Total Allowable Catches (TACs) and quotas, have been repeated by the British government, even though experience from fisheries in Iceland, the Faeroes and – to an extent, Norway – has shown that these are not appropriate tools for managing a mixed fishery.
Details, inevitably, are complex, but any effective system (and certainly in respect of the inshore fisheries) should be based on a mixture of fleet and vessel controls (limiting numbers of vessels, their sizes, capacities and power), with effort control (days at sea), combined with the use of selective fishing gear and techniques, with real time catch monitoring and a flexible programme of fisheries closures based on monitoring results.
But the other thing that comes over loud and clear is that there must be a strong element of local management, with full participation of the many stakeholders together with strong community commitment, otherwise it is difficult to fine-tune policies to the precise needs of individual fisheries, all of which have their individual characteristics.
It is precisely because the EU is unable to devolve management of fisheries to a local level that it has opted for the blunt tools of TACs and quotas, yet the UK seems to be determined to repeat the errors, with a top-down, centrally managed system.
There are, of course, the added complications that, before any fish or fisheries products from UK waters can be landed in the ports of EU Member States, there must be fisheries management plans in force, which must have been approved by the EU Commission. This is very much the elephant in the room, and seriously limits the UK government’s room for manoeuvre.
Before we even get to discussing these issues, though, it seems there are developments, on the EU front, although not necessarily to anyone’s advantage – particularly the fishermen.
It seems that “team Barnier” is signalling that the EU is prepared to adopt a different method of apportioning the spoils, based on a system known as “zonal attachment”, where fishing quotas are allocated according to the distribution of fish stocks rather than geographical zones.
Currently, under the CFP, what are euphemistically called “fishing opportunities” in respect of national quotas, are calculated on the basis of the principle of “relative stability”.
Once a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) is determined for a given stock, the relative stability key is used to allocate shares to individual Member States based on their fishing activity over the reference period of 1973-1978. Although the TAC may change annually, the percentage shares for each stock are fixed.
It is argued by the UK that the UK’s overall share of fishing opportunities under relative stability does not accurately reflect the quantity of fish found and caught within the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and therefore results in a poor deal for the UK.
The reality, though, is that the CFP, no matter how calculated, will always give the UK a poor deal. The essence of the policy is one of appropriation, where the UK’s fishing waters were unilaterally (and illegally) declared a “common resource” by the EEC, the stocks then to be apportioned between Member States, based on a notional “track record” over the historic reference period.
It was precisely this policy which induced Norway to reject EEC membership and, as long as it exists, the system will prevent modern and effective fisheries management techniques being adopted. Changing the baseline for apportionment is merely lipstick on the pig.
However, since – in theory – the use of “zonal attachment” could deliver a higher share of fish to the British fleet (notwithstanding that most of it is under foreign ownership), there are marginal advantages to pursuing this line, and Barnier seems willing to consider it.
He has, for instance, conceded in evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on the post-Brexit trade negotiations, that the EU’s position on fishing was “clearly not” balanced – not that it was ever intended to be. But, with that, Brussels is willing to be “creative” to break the deadlock over the trade negotiations.
Nevertheless, Barnier is making it very clear that the EU intends to link fisheries and trade agreements. He says he is waiting “with much patience” for a response from “team Johnson” to his latest ideas. But, he says, “if there is no response, there will be no agreement on fisheries and no agreement on trade”.
In essence, though, a pig with lipstick is still a pig, and all Barnier is talking about is redefining the method of apportionment, without conceding the principle of relative stability. This government may think that this represents a good (or better) deal, but there will be many fishermen who are not convinced.
The overarching problem though is that the complexities of fishing policy are such that it is easy to pull the wool over the eyes of MPs and the media, and present a messy and basically unsatisfactory deal as if it was a negotiating victory.
Those with longer memories will recall that that was precisely the tack adopted by the Heath administration in the 70s, tempered by direct lies about the nature of the policy. If history is about to repeat itself, the Johnson administration will be no more forgiven than Heath ever was. In the fishing communities as they stand (what’s left of them), trust is not high.
Also published on Turbulent Times.