Fisheries Bill 2020: What Does it have in Stock?
21 April 2020
The Fisheries Bill 2020, part of the government’s core legislative program on post-Brexit environmental policy, is currently in the House of Lords at committee stage, and is expected to receive royal assent in the coming months (although exactly when is subject to how successfully the House of Lords can adapt to meeting via Microsoft Teams). It would establish Britain’s departure from the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) on January 1st 2021, and sets out how fishing rights would work post transition period and CFP.
Given the passion that fishing rights raise, you might be forgiven for thinking that they were absolutely essential to the functioning of the UK and EU economies. In fact, fishing accounts for around 0.1% of both. A joke going around environmental blogs is that green bills are like buses – none come when you need them, then they all arrive at once. Perhaps for the Environment and Agriculture Bills – discussed by me here and here. But the Fisheries Bill feels more like the Brexit Bus than a local routemaster. It promises the repatriation of sovereign powers and gains in the millions by taking back control of our waters, while hiding potential losses in the billions, if issues with fishing rights derail trade negotiations – a slim but real possibility.
Even the most entrenched remainer, however, would have to recognise the multiple failures of the CFP. It has been plagued by mismanaged quotas and outsized lobbying interests since its inception, and it has clearly favoured certain member states over others. The Fisheries Bill has as such been largely well received by environmental groups, such as Greener UK, who comment that the “focus on climate change and sustainability is very helpful”. I’ll start with what the bill actually says, then discuss the EU negotiation position and conclude with a few comments about what the legislation may mean for the future relations.
The Bill in Brief
Motivating the Fisheries Bill is the idea of repatriating control of the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and ‘catch and effort’ quota. The EEZ refers to the 200 nautical mile radius from the coast over which any given country has control as per international law, international agreements like the CFP notwithstanding. The catch and effort quota refers to the legal maximum number of fish anyone can catch and the legal number of days anyone can fish respectively.
Clause 1 sets out the government’s eight fisheries objectives:
- (a) the sustainability objective;
- (b) the precautionary objective;
- (c) the ecosystem objective;
- (d) the scientific evidence objective;
- (e) the bycatch objective;
- (f) the equal access objective;
- (g) the national benefit objective; and
- (h) the climate change objective
Under the Fisheries Bill, the relevant secretaries of state would be required to order a Joint Fisheries Statement (JFS), required 18 months after the bill receives royal assent and at least every 6 years following that. The JFS would set out a joint framework between Westminster and the devolved power for how they intended to achieve the 8 fisheries objectives. The framework for laying out the JFS is described in clauses 2 – 11.
Clauses 12 – 18 deal with the granting of fishing licences to both British and foreign vessels. Clause 12 states:
“(1) A foreign fishing boat must not enter British fishery limits [Britain’s EEZ] except— (a) for the purpose of fishing in accordance with a sea fishing licence, or (b) for a purpose recognised by international law or by any international agreement or arrangement to which the United Kingdom is a party.”
Article 5 of the CFP, which gives EU fishing vessels “equal access to waters and resources” in all EU waters, is revoked by paragraph 2 of schedule 10, thereby stopping access from EU vessels according to part b. Clauses 14 – 18 grant powers to relevant ministers to grant fishing licences to foreign vessels. The political declaration on future relations agreed between Boris Johnson and EU leaders sets a July 2020 deadline for negotiating access for EU vessels to UK waters. This is looking likely to be missed. In the most recent round of trade talks, 2 months before the deadline, Britain has still not submitted any proposals for fishing rights.
Clauses 23 – 27 set out the management of “fishing opportunities” – ‘catch and effort quotas’, or the total amount of fish that can be caught (catch) and the total number of days fishable (effort). The CFP was heavily criticised for its allocations of “Total Allowable Catches” (TACs), which regularly exceeded scientific advice. Illustrative of this is North Sea cod stocks: concerted conservation efforts allowed the stocks to recover to “sustainable” levels in 2017, according to the Marine Conservation Society, only to return to endangered status 2 years later, as the result of overly lax TACs. Clause 23 establishes catch and effort quotas in line with scientific advice over what is sustainable, and 24 – 27 deal with their implementation and sale overseas.
One of the areas that the EU has been particularly weak in regulating was in the so-called “discard ban”. Discarding is the practise of returning caught fish to the sea, dead or alive, if they are illegal (due to insufficient size or exceeded quotas) or uneconomical. The practice has been blamed in part for the depletion of European fish stocks, but efforts by the EU to implement discard bans have been largely ineffective. Clauses 28 to 32 describe various powers given to the secretary of state to implement a discard ban after leaving the CFP, as well as the requisite powers to charge those who flout it.
The EUs Negotiating Stance
The EU insists that any trade agreement with the UK must include long-term fishing provisions, largely because of the value of UK fishing waters to EU fishermen. EU member states’ vessels annually caught roughly 749,000 tonnes of fish (£575 million revenue) caught in UK waters, while UK vessels landed approximately only 96,000 tonnes (£96 million revenue) from non-UK EU waters. The UKs position is that free trade agreements and fishing access are independent issues and should be negotiated separately; and that fishing access should be subject to yearly review, similar to the EU’s agreements with Norway.
It’s important not to underestimate the importance of British fishing waters to the EU. Britain has some of the richest fishing waters in the world. The EU fleet itself is far too big for the waters it fishes, requiring British fishing waters to fill its trawlers; fishing in British waters allows the EU fishing industry, which is already heavily subsidised, to remain economically viable. On the other hand, the British fishing industry is reliant on trade with Europe. Britain imports 90% of its cod, the nation’s favourite fish (although mainly from Norway and Iceland, not the EU), and exports 75% of its catch to the EU, meaning that access to those markets are essential for its functioning. It’s unsurpising that Amélie de Montchalin, France’s Europe minister, answered “yes” to whether failure to negotiate fishing rights could collapse the entire trade deal.
Britain has not submitted proposals for fishing rights negotiations in the most recent round of talks. This is in line with its position that fishing rights should be negotiated yearly, and separately from free trade talks, but leaves the EU nervous. The July 1st deadline for the fishing agreement seems particularly ambitious since normal negotiation difficulties are being compounded by access and communication issues resulting from Coronavirus. Add to the mix the repeated assertions from the British government that they will not seek to extend the deadline, it makes the possibility that EU vessels will be fishing in British waters on January 1st 2021, as the CFP is replaced by the Fisheries Bill, increasingly unlikely. Whether that will be to the benefit of the UK fishermen, who may well be subject to up to 24% import tariffs on fish in the EU market, we will have to see.
Rafe Jennings is a journalist and aspiring barrister with an interest in environmental law and policy. He is now a regular contributor to UKHRB.