The EU nearly killed our fishing industry, Brexit is our chance to see it flourish again
hat old Labour firebrand Aneurin Bevan put his finger on it. “This island is made mainly of coal and surrounded by fish,” he said. “Only an organising genius could produce a shortage of coal and fish at the same time.”
Well, we turned our backs on coal a long time ago. As for the fish, we gave much of them away to our European neighbours when we joined the then European Economic Community and the disastrous Common Fisheries Policy back in the early Seventies.
Brexit offers us the chance to restore our marine environment, begin to rebuild our once great fishing industry and to breathe fresh life back into many of our rundown coastal towns.
The decline of the British fishing industry since we joined the EEC in 1973 is startling and depressing. Back then, we were landing a million tons of fish every year in UK ports. We had more than 20,000 fishermen and many thousands of boats. Today, those numbers are much diminished. Landings have more than halved to 400,000 tons a year and manpower is down to 12,000.
Our fishing fleet fell from nearly 9,000 vessels in the mid-Nineties to just over 6,000 today to accommodate the additional capacity brought in by the EU. Before the early Eighties we were a net exporter of fish – today we operate a trade deficit of 240,000 tons.
Nothing has better come to symbolise the destructive power of the EU, as it became, than the ruination of the British fishing industry. Imagine the outcry there would have been if 40 years of EU membership had more than halved the output of our manufacturing industries or decimated the City of London. We would have quit years ago.
One of the most vivid moments of the referendum campaign was when a flotilla of 30 fishing boats, organised by Fishing for Leave, steamed up the Thames to Westminster only to encounter a rival fleet commanded by the millionaire Bob Geldof. Geldof’s contemptuous two fingers to the fishermen and his abusive comments delivered by loud-hailer were wonderfully symbolic of the way that the metropolitan elite has repeatedly ignored the legitimate protests of the fishing industry.
So how do we go about putting our fishing industry back on its feet?
First, as we exit the EU in 2019, we also withdraw from the CFP and, invoking the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, restore our historic fishing limits. These are territorial waters, extending 12 miles from our coastline and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending 200 miles from our base line or to a median line with a neighbouring state.
Quotas have been an environmental catastrophe. When they were doled out in 1983, we had 80 per cent of Europe’s fishing waters but got an allocation of just 37 per cent by volume – representing perhaps as little as 12 per cent by value.
So secondly, we have to scrap the pernicious CFP quota system and in doing so, end the practice of “discards”. This sees perfectly good and healthy fish thrown back into the sea dead because a trawler has exceeded its quota for a particular species of fish. A trawler may well have to stop fishing and return to port even though it is below its quota for other types of fish.
The recent EU Discard Ban is failing because discards are the inevitable symptom of the quota system. Whoever owns them, quotas must now be converted into the simpler and fairer “days at sea” where fishermen have the right to fish for a fixed period of time and must land everything they catch. Modern technology allows us to monitor fish catches in real time, so that marine management decisions are made on accurate information day to day. This will quickly improve our marine environment, increase stocks and begin to revive our coastal towns.
In its recent White Paper on exiting the EU, the Government promised to deliver a “sustainable and profitable seafood sector and a cleaner, healthier and more productive marine environment.”
Scrapping quotas and replacing them with real time management will restore the health of our waters, bringing prosperity and jobs back to our historic fishing grounds.
Owen Paterson MP is a former Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
March 22nd, 2017: Telegraph