The UK fishing fleet, around 6,000 vessels, lands some 708,000 tonnes of fish a year, worth almost £800m. The entire industry, including packing and processing, accounts for under 0.1pc of GDP. Fishing, though, was once a large employer. It is also, for many, hugely symbolic of our relationship with Europe.
The UK is withdrawing from the London Fishing Convention, Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced last week. This was welcome and important. When it comes to fishing, the gains from Brexit are clear, relatively immediate and should appeal to multiple interest groups.
Before entering the European Economic Community in 1973, Britain controlled Europe’s largest “living marine resource”. Just before we legally joined, the six existing EEC members passed a last-minute regulation granting themselves access to UK fishing waters. It was an outrageous, sneaky move – yet Prime Minister Edward Heath accepted it, so determined was he to be in the club. Ever since, the UK’s fishing folk have felt betrayed.
The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy is a bloated, bureaucratic mess that incenses both the fishing industry and environmentalists concerned about over-fishing. A recent study by the University of the Highlands and Islands found that a 58pc share of the fish caught from UK waters each year is claimed by non-UK boats – a catch worth over £400m. British trawlers fishing elsewhere in EU waters, meanwhile, annually land just a £100m haul per annum.
John Ashworth, a highly-respected fisherman-turned-campaigner, observes that the once premier fishing port of Peterhead, close to Aberdeen, now has “hardly any Scottish vessels”. Peterhead is deepening its ports, but only “to accommodate Spanish and French vessels using it as a transit point”. Over half the fish taken by non-EU boats in British waters each year are caught off Scotland.
After years of simmering resentment, Brexit gives our fishing industry hope. “Leaving the EU is an incredible opportunity”, says the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, despite the impression given by SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon that everyone north of the border backed Remain. Outside the EU, Britain can regain control over territorial waters – provided we avoid giving such rights away during the Article 50 talks. Other EU nations hope we will. Gripes over Gibraltar by Spain – which has one of the world’s largest fishing fleets – could be a future bargaining chip to retain access to UK fishing grounds.
Gove, though, has given a clear signal that won’t happen. The Scottish fishmonger’s son has delighted UK fishing communities by triggering the two-year withdrawal process from the London Convention. Signed in 1964, before our EEC membership, it grants reciprocal fishing rights with France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands in an area 6-12 miles from each nation’s coast. The Common Fisheries Policy goes much further, allowing vessels from all member states to fish beyond the 12-mile limit, subject to Brussels’ detested quotas.
Separate from EU legislation, and covering different waters, leaving the London Convention is still an important step towards reclaiming control over British seas. The UK fishing industry has high hopes Gove will declare sovereignty over territorial waters under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea out to 200 miles, or the mid-point between nearer countries.
The benefits of effective post-Brexit fishing policies are potentially substantial and wide-ranging. Declining UK fishing ports could be revitalized, as small family-run fleets are once again able to thrive. A British Fisheries Policy could reinvigorate both the commercial and recreational side of the industry, helping us move, in UK waters at least, from over-fishing to sustainable fishing. “If Brexit is to herald a better future,” said Greenpeace, cautiously welcoming Gove’s move, “the government must rebalance quotas in favour of small-scale, locally-based fishing communities”. Amen to that.
The success of small fishing outfits would boost spending in coastal towns, encouraging young people to stay and raise families, rebuilding what were once economically and culturally vibrant communities. In time, such towns would once again attract tourists. Some of the UK’s most deprived rural areas are adjacent to the coastline – they should benefit too.
Fishing could be one of those Brexit success stories that captures the public’s imagination and, amidst all the political chest beating and relentless negativity from mainstream broadcasters, helps to convince Remain voters there are upsides to leaving the EU. Agriculture could be another.
Accounting for less than 1pc of GDP, the UK’s farming sector is also a relatively small share of the British economy. As with fishing, though, Brexit could bring changes to agriculture that are relatively fast and widely seen as positive.
The EU’s most protected sector, large tariffs on agricultural imports from outside the EU are combined with payments via the Common Agricultural Policy – which accounts for almost 40pc of annual EU spending. Subsidies are largely based on land held by each farmer.
The largest UK landowners, then, receive huge CAP payments, with millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money going to British aristocrats, Arab princes, large agribusinesses and offshore land-holding trusts. Smaller farmers, often struggling, get far less. The UK’s top hundred CAP recipients shared £49.9m in 2016, more than was paid to the bottom 35,000 farmers combined.
Although many farms are dependent on EU subsidies, the majority of farmers backed Brexit. Ministers have since vowed to maintain subsidies until 2020 at least – and, sick of overly bureaucratic EU rules, many farmers hope the UK government can better target financial help to farms that need it most.
Outside the CAP, and with farm imports free of Europe’s common external tariff, UK consumers could also enjoy cheaper food. The government needs to sell a positive case for Brexit. Fishing and farming are part of that story.