Brexit and the Future of British Fisheries and Markets

A recent article in The Times by Hugo Rifkind discussed the challenges faced by the United Kingdom’s fishing industry as the UK prepares to leave the European Union, per the Brexit vote earlier this year. According to Rifkind, many in the fishing community sided with the “Leave” campaign, but may regret their decision to do so. Rifkind cites the impending trade complications as the most ominous of problems: For example, UK fishermen currently export 80% of catches, mostly to the EU. After Leaving, UK fishermen will lose access to their largest and most important market.

But, much of the fishing in British waters is done by European fishermen who will lose access post-Leave. Brexit will force an interesting negotiation between UK fishermen, who need access to the European market, and European fishermen who need access to British waters. Rifkind laments that this negotiation could potentially swing against UK fishermen and ultimately result in UK fishermen being worse-off.

Comment by *A highly placed anonymous source familiar with European fisheries

This article rightly points out the biased and incomplete information that was fed to UK fishermen by Brexiters.

On the allegedly unfair allocation of fishing rights to UK fishermen upon accession to the EU, the UK in fact obtained the so-called ‘Hague preferences’ which give UK (and Irish) fishermen a preferential treatment on allocation of quotas when TACs are low. But specially, the system of quota allocation among Member States (the so-called ‘relative stability’) is defended by UK fishermen and government alike as a corner stone of the policy, and fiercely oppose any attempt to reopen it. If the allocation was so unfair, they would perhaps be interested in reopening it to base it on other criteria. But they fiercely oppose any such attempt. One can conclude that perhaps the allocation is not that bad for them after all.

They keep complaining about the presence of foreign vessels in UK waters. But this was the deal upon accession: access to UK waters by continental vessels against free access of British fish to continental markets. One must take into account that before accession to the UK, the British market for fish only focused on ‘fish and chips’ species, and disregarded such valuable species as monkfish or Norway lobster! Upon accession, they started to keep on board these species to sell them in the French and then the Spanish market, making a huge leap forward in revenues.

The presence of foreign companies as UK quota holders is a normal fact within the EU. British companies own most of the Spanish production of olive oil, for example. Or Vodafone of the UK bought Mannesmann of Germany to become Germany’s main mobile phone operator. Normal fact of life in the EU. But for some reason Eurosceptics always find British investment abroad as a normal thing, but foreign investment in the UK fishing industry as an unacceptable invasion. Go ask them why. Beyond that, if the problem of the Dutch investor is that a single, huge vessel takes too much of the UK quotas to the detriment of small-scale UK fishermen, then do not go to Brussels for an explanation; go to London: the allocation of national quotas among operators is an exclusive competence of national authorities. Brussels does not interfere with that at all.

The idea that UK consumers should eat British fish instead of imported one is ludicrous. Fish markets are global, and modern tastes are not shaped anymore by local production. Is somebody asking British consumers to stop eating sushi because the UK doesn’t fish tuna? Why should the British consumers be different?

The article is right in pinpointing the recent recovery of stocks which is benefiting UK fishermen enormously. The CFP may be evil, but Scottish fishermen are fishing more and earning more than ever before. The idea that with Brexit they will benefit even more is effectively very much in the air. The rest of the EU fishes more in UK waters than the other way round. But the UK sells more fish in the EU market than the other way round. So the question is: if they leave completely they may have a higher share of the common stocks, but they would lose the European market. Does one compensate the other? That is the real question, and is not straightforward; it largely depends on future trade flows, the capacity of markets to absorb different species and the capacity of the sector to find new markets.

*Editor’s note: This piece was written by a highly placed fishery manager in Europe. Due to the sensitive nature of public officials sharing personal opinions, we have kept the person anonymous.
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