Whilst Britain pull their nets out from the vast expanse that is the European Union, the issue of fish is largely unheard of by the consumers whose plates may be altered by Brexit. “Maybe the biggest question of all,” says Gerard van Balsfoort, chair of the European Fisheries Alliance (EUFA), “is will we maintain our access to the UK waters and if not, how will the EU and the UK allocate the fishing opportunities and the quotas?” Within the answer lies the question of whether the issue of overfishing is being combatted by those in power. The explanation is not so simple, and as the issue is beyond our shoes, it also tends to take place behind closed doors.
200 nautical miles from the shore of Edinburgh sit over 300 fishing vessels, competing for the catch of a shared, and mobile, resource. Hundreds of feet below is a world of its own, teeming with profitable inhabitants, unaware of the political boundaries created by humans, and persistently blind to their own value. 400 kilometres in land sit 28 European Commissioners, discussing how Brexit is paving the way for the future of the European Union. Van Balsfoort explains though that when it comes to the fishing industry, “The UK is in the middle of everything like a spider in a web.” But in this instance, like a whale shark in a net, swimming against the pull of authority.
“If a lot of fisherman voted for Brexit it is because they were told that the UK will take control of its own waters,” says Ignacio Vanzini of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). After leaving the European Union, Britain can technically claim exclusive rights to a 12-mile zone around its coastline, limiting the access of fleets from other European states. Although this is possible under International Law, explains Vanzini, it is more complicated than it may seem.
The UK currently have fleets in four or five other member states, explains Vanzini, and so if they were to restrict access to their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the EU could do the same, and this would no longer be in favour of Britain’s fishing sector.
The EEZ is the 200 nautical miles which surrounds the coast, in which the state concerned has preeminent economic rights to its marine habitat.
Van Balsfoort says that a lot of rhetoric over the EEZ comes from the UK but that in the end, they share over 100 stocks with the EU. This means that because many of the species of fish caught by fleets are migratory species and cross territorial boundaries, the UK and other states have interests in the same resources, so it is not as simple as just claiming territory. Secondly, he adds, they share a very long history and with the UK being a modern government with high ambitions on marine environment and management of natural resources, it is difficult to believe that they would jeopardise the current “rather healthy” situation.
UK fleets rely on their territorial waters for about 80 per cent of its total catches, but as the rest is from zones outside their EEZ, they still have vested interests within other member states. European fleets however, also rely on UK waters for between 30 and 60 per cent of their landings, particularly the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. This on average represents a quarter of EU-fleet total catch value.
Currently, all EU member states abide by the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The CFP, as explained by the European Commission website, is a set of rules for managing fleets and for conserving fish stocks. Under this policy, all European fishing fleets have equal access to EU waters, and must take action to ensure the European fishing industry is sustainable and does not threaten fish population and productivity. Vanzini of the WWF says that the CFP will be one of the main areas of policy affected by Brexit, due to the nature of fishing industry, which shares a resource that does not respect political boundaries.
“It is like taking a part out of a jigsaw puzzle,” says van Balsfoort of the EUFA. “If you pull out one of the largest member states which has the largest sea area, it will have to affect the fisheries policy later on. The UK will make their own fisheries policy and we don’t know what it will be.”
There is a worry that the UK will increase their quotas in their management plans, which Vanzini says would not only be terrible for the environment but also for the British fisherman. If quotas are set too high, stocks decrease he explains, along with their ability to reproduce, thus resulting in less fish for the future and later, a loss of the industry.
But aside from Brexit, is the European Union in fact using the CFP to ensure sustainability? Linnea Engstrom, Member of the European Parliament for the Greens Party, thinks not.
The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), an intergovernmental science organisation, has indicated that there is a need for a 40% reduction in the fishing fleet to avoid overfishing. But Engstrom says that the scientific advice is not being followed. “No, the European Council are not respecting the CFP as it was meant to be respected. We invited the Council to come to the European Parliament to explain and to have an exchange of views on the Baltic total allowable catch (TACs) for 2018 because we are constantly seeing that they don’t respect co-decision and they are still setting very, very high quotas and are not respecting the things we agreed upon in a legal process.”
“In every single sector there is pressure to open up and have better transparency,” she says. “But not in fisheries. In the fishing sector, it’s all behind closed doors.” Engstrom uses the North Sea plan as an example. “So far, not much has happened. We haven’t managed to stop overfishing with this plan.”
The Multi-Annual Plan for the North Sea is a negotiation of the EU to manage fisheries in the specific area of the North Sea. In April of this year, the European Council proposed that the plan would focus on demersal fisheries, which are bottom-sea species and represent over 70% of EU catches in the North Sea. It was originally proposed by the European Commission as the second plan to consolidate the reforms of the CFP in 2013. Supposedly, these plans are vital for the sustainability of the industry.
In the North Sea in 2007, says Vanzini, 70% of stocks were overfished because much higher quotas were set than should have been allowed. Now, Vanzini reports that 45% of stocks are overfished, a noticeable reduction. This trend must continue however, as almost half of fish stocks are overfished, against scientific advice.
“For some stocks, the EU is following scientific advice, but for others they are going far beyond and for some species, they are actually setting lower quotas than the scientists say will be feasible,” says Vanzini.
“Things are really bad”, Engstrom insists. Overfishing is still an issue and any transparency and accountability of the CFP is being totally disregarded. Vanzini agrees that scientific advice concerning the sustainable exploitation of fish must be followed by the EU in order to sustain the industry and let alone to have any successful negotiations with the UK. He says that in the end, it is all about international negotiations and most importantly, that the quota that is set follows scientific advice.
Amongst the many current negotiations concerning Brexit, the issue of the fishing industry should also rise to the surface, as it is an opportunity to increase the transparency of the EU in regards to the fishing policy. Whilst arguments on whose territory is whose take place, current quotas should also be looked at, if the EU expects Britain to abide by the rules of sustainability.
“One thing is what scientists say and another this is what politicians do. Because they also have to consider the impacts for the fisherman. So to find the right balance behind having a business and making it sustainable at the same time is not easy, especially in the fisheries sector,” says Vanzini.
Henry David Thoreau once said that “many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.” Perhaps the same goes for all the men who eat fish their whole lives without knowing the fisherman.