Scottish fisheries leader: Brexit presents opportunities and threats

As the reality of Brexit draws closer, fisheries representatives in the United Kingdom are still analyzing its impacts and seeking to exert their influence to maximize the potential positives they see coming as a result.

Mike Park, the CEO of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association (SWFPA), the largest fishermen’s organization in Europe, spoke to SeafoodSource about the opportunities and threats to the U.K. catching sector following the country’s divorce from the European Union at the end of March 2019.

He explained that a considerable amount of his time has been spent over the past year-and-a-half – since the British public voted to leave the E.U. – in talks to ensure that his members have a fair deal following Brexit. This involves devising strategy and lobbying various departments of the U.K. government to ensure that the views and needs of the fishing sector are taken into account during the exit settlement. The aim is for the U.K. to become a coastal state under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and to manage its own waters and fish stocks.  

“Despite all the rhetoric about things being immediately better after Brexit, I believe that the large benefits, in terms of new, improved fixed quotas shares, will take some years to negotiate, and anyone who thinks there are big gains to be had immediately is kidding themselves,” he said. “That said, we should be able to improve our situation from day one via coastal state negotiations.” 

Park pointed out one obvious opportunity in taking back control of U.K. waters is the ability to have a greater share of permitted catches, “Not to increase the size of the pie, but to get a bigger share of the pie.” 

This, in turn, will help to revitalize coastal and remote communities, leading to investment and job creation, Park said.

“We have the opportunity to completely revitalize the way we manage fisheries after Brexit and I would push for an inclusive, bottom-up, co-management approach that delivers policy with a regional approach,” he said. “In time, we would aim to become world leaders in the delivery of sustainably harvested, quality seafood.”

The threats of Brexit are all too real, especially a situation in which the U.K. leaves without finalizing a trade deal, according to Park. He explained that non-tariff barriers such as additional port and customs inspections are feared by the sector more than tariffs, as these could cause unnecessary delays and damage trade.

Park is also fearful that fish stocks and access rights may be traded by the U.K. government as part of an overall deal, which would leave the country little leverage in later coastal state negotiations. Agreeing to a longer transition period before leaving would also affect the U.K.’s ability to take part in negotiations for long-term management plans of jointly managed stocks such as mackerel.   

Park is keen for the U.K. to leave the E.U.’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) as soon as possible, arguing that it has led to significant confusion. The CFP’s Landing Obligation, which has been rolled out to all quota species over the past few years, means that everything caught at sea must be landed, and this has led to many issues with “choke” species. 

“For some fishermen, it is the unwanted element of the catch that poses a problem, but for others involved in mixed fisheries, it means stopping fishing because they don’t have enough quota to cover catches of large mature fish,” Park said. “The ability to negotiate larger shares of quotas should provide a pathway to solving these choke issues. I believe that a more sensible adaptive management approach is needed to overcome these issues.”

In 2017, the U.K. fleet landed approximately 581,000 metric tons (MT) of fish from U.K. waters, with a gross value of GBP 811 million (USD 1.05 billion, EUR 926.1 million). British vessels also caught around 94,000 MT worth GBP 88 million (USD 114 million, EUR 100.5 million) in the waters of other E.U. member states, as permitted by the CFP.

Recent research undertaken by the University of Aberdeen for the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, the umbrella body for a number of Scottish fishing associations, looked at the spatial distribution of 17 stocks of interest to Scotland, such as cod, haddock, monkfish, hake, whiting, and plaice. 

It compared the percentage of fish stocks assessed to be within the U.K.’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the percentage of the total allowable catch (TAC) allocated to the U.K. by Europe, and used this data to create a zonal attachment model. Analysis using the model showed that the U.K. only catches 36 percent of the fish and shellfish caught in its waters. 

“If U.K. fishing boats could catch half of the principal species landed from the U.K. EEZ, then the total value of their landings would increase to around GBP 1 billion (USD 1.3 billion, EUR 1.14 billion), which is a 23-percent increase on the 2016 figures used in the study,” Park said.

The future for the U.K. fishing industry remains unclear until a deal is finally struck between the government and the E.U., but in the meantime planning for all contingencies must continue, Park said.

“I foresee that, following Brexit, we will be negotiating with different countries over access rights for many years, to ensure we eventually get a plan that looks more like zonal attachment,” he said. “This means that my work is cut out for some time to come.”

Photo courtesy of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association


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