In the run up to the UK’s referendum on EU membership in 2016, the fishing industry was a much-debated topic – but how will it fare in a post-Brexit environment? (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The Fisheries Bill will lay out the rules for the fishing industry in the post-Brexit UK, and it has now returned to the House of Lords to assess the House of Commons amendments – or lack thereof to some – that took place on 13 October.

During the debate in the House of Commons, Conservative MP for Banbury and Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Victoria Prentis said that the bill had to “balance environmental, social and economic needs”.

Sustainable fish cities project officer at food and farming alliance Sustain Ruth Westcott explains that this rhetoric – that the needs of the environment and of the fishing industry need to be balanced – has to stop because “in fishing, those two go together; there is no trade-off, you cannot have one without the other”.

“You need one to allow the other, and if there is a drop in catches in the short term, which in some cases will happen, that needs to be compensated by the government,” she adds. “The government needs to support fisheries through that time so that [the industry] can see the rewards in the long term.”

During the four-hour debate in the House of Commons, an amendment to include in the bill a sustainable cap to fishing quotas was rejected. The bill will replace the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, versions of which have regulated British waters since the UK joined the EEC in 1973.

Will UK fisheries industry be reliant on trade deals?

Ensuring the sustainability of the UK fishing industry is vital, because “if we don’t recover the fish stocks, then there won’t be any fish there to fish anyway”, says Westcott.

However, even if the UK manages to build a fair and sustainable fishing industry upon leaving the EU, another issue is at stake: trade.

Professor of fisheries conservation at the Lyell Centre in Heriot-Watt University Michel Kaiser believes that the UK fishing industry will likely have access to more fish to catch, but trade agreements are needed.

“At the moment, unless the negotiations change very radically, it looks like UK fishermen are going to end up with more product than they can remove from the sea,” he explains. “It is all very well having the product, but you have to be able to sell it into a market that wants to buy.”

The UK is a net importer of fish, meaning that it imports more fish than it exports. Furthermore, the majority of the fish eaten in the UK are not caught in the country, while the fish caught in the UK are not widely eaten by British consumers.

“The UK is not really a sort of fishing nation; we should think about it more as a fish trading nation, where we are importers and exporters of fish rather than eaters of our own fish,” Westcott points out.

“Most of the fish that we eat with regards to the traditional ‘fish and chips’ in the UK – sustainable cod and haddock – is from Iceland, Norway or Sweden,” she adds. “In fish and chip shops we used to eat British fish a generation or so ago, but now it is nearly all imported. It is because with the fish that we used to eat, especially North Sea cod, the stocks are so low now that it would never be able to meet demand and what is left is incredibly expensive because it is so sought after.”

In the event of a no-deal Brexit…

If the UK does not reach a trade agreement with the EU, the former might have to alter its taste in seafood. To adapt a quote commonly thought to be spoken by Marie Antoinette, perhaps we should “let them eat lobster”.

UK shellfish exports accounted for about 26% of fish and fish products exports by value in 2019, according to data from HM Revenue and Customs, with these products mostly being sold in Europe. Shellfish products are also expensive, so even if a sudden shift in consumer taste took place, it is still unlikely that British shellfish would be eaten en masse by the UK population.

“[For UK consumers to move towards products such as lobster on a large scale] people have got to find money so they can afford to do so,” says Kaiser. “I can’t remember the last time I had a lobster – and if I did have a lobster, it was probably a Canadian lobster that was flown in because it was cheap and you could buy in Lidl for [a low cost].”

Despite the rejection of the amendment to include in the bill a sustainable cap to fishing quotas based on scientific evidence, a government spokesperson said: “Our flagship Fisheries Bill enshrines our commitment to sustainable fishing in law, introducing legally binding Fisheries Management Plans – which will ensure UK waters are managed sustainably and will enable a thriving fishing industry for current and future generations.”

For Westcott, this is not enough, and she sees the Fisheries Bill “as a very loose piece of legislation”.

“It is supposed to set out the general framework for what a future fishing policy will look like, and then that future policy will come in these annual statements,” she adds. “So it is thin on detail. But the challenge is that because those annual statements will have less scrutiny, what we need to do is get proper commitments to sustainability in the bill itself, because that will tie the hand of each annual negotiation to have very clear requirements – that it is sustainability that is the most important thing to deliver.”

The UK’s quest to set sustainable fisheries standards

Establishing a sustainable fishing industry in the UK – which Westcott states should already be in place – would require investment in science to assess fishing stocks, as well as enforcement through CCTV cameras on vessels.

Westcott acknowledges that fishermen will naturally be sceptical about having their work monitored, but she says that this would ensure that “everybody is on the same boat”. A third requirement would be to find a way of allocating the fishing quota that is deemed fair by all parties.

Currently, the UK distributes ‘fixed-quota allocations’ that give the holder the right to catch a certain amount of the UK fishing quota within the EU – the ‘total allowable catch’. However, these fixed-quota allocations can be traded.

“At the moment that allocation process is completely unfair in that it is not prioritising sustainable fishing or small-scale fishers at all,” says Westcott. “It is basically sold in an auction process, which has sort of allowed capitalism to creep into the management of the natural ecosystem, which has led to the quota being controlled by very few companies through a long process over many years.”

The bill has now been returned to the House of Lords for consideration of the amendments taken in on 13 October in the House of Commons, but no date has been scheduled for this yet.

Irrespective of the final iteration of the bill, given the prominence of the fortunes of the UK fishing industry in the highly emotive Brexit debates, the topic will remain high on the agenda of politicians on both the leave and remain sides of the argument. Many on the leave side promised a return to something approaching the UK’s halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s. Those on the remain side are unlikely to settle for anything less.