Fisheries stakeholders on tenterhooks over Brexit deal

Failure to agree mutual access to fishing waters post-Brexit could threaten the whole Common Fisheries Policy, putting Europe’s fishermen in peril, warns Grace O’Sullivan.
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By Grace O’Sullivan

Grace O’Sullivan (IE, Greens/EFA) is a shadow rapporteur on Parliament’s report on Fisheries Control

14 Jul 2020

Brexit’s shadow continues to cast a pall over the EU in many areas, but possibly nowhere as markedly as fisheries policy. The Brexit agreement stipulated that a deal on the long-term arrangement between the UK and EU on fisheries would be concluded by the 1 July, 6 months before other aspects of the future relationship.

In part this was recognition of the challenges facing the now politically-charged topic, which was often referenced during the referendum campaign itself in the UK. Both the EU and the UK seemed happy to try and remove the issue from discussion before moving on to other topics like trade and market access.

That plan has not gone well: the 1 July deadline has been missed, with both sides digging into their respective positions. The UK insists on a ‘zonal attachment’ approach to quota management, which relies on tying fish to geographical areas, in contrast to the ‘relative stability’ norm (which relies on historical precedent in allocating catch levels, in line with scientific data), that the EU wants to see continue.

“Without a reciprocal access agreement for UK boats to access EU waters and vice versa, significant numbers of fishermen will end up going to the wall”

Rumours swirl around Brussels, London and EU capitals, with prospects of ‘dangerous compromise’ one week, and the demise of, or threat to, domestic and international fisheries sectors, the next. On the ground, in my southern Ireland constituency, stakeholders in the industry are on tenterhooks.

When the British Government published its new Fisheries Bill in the UK Parliament earlier this year - a Bill governing access to UK fishing waters post- Brexit and potentially putting an end to automatic rights for EU vessels to fish in British waters - the move was met with dismay in other European capitals.

In some British media, reports referred to the Bill’s potential to put control of British waters back into the UK’s hands, enabling the creation of a sustainable, profitable fishing industry for coastal communities.

But at home in Ireland, the mood I was experiencing in the Irish fishing industry was, in contrast, decidedly sombre. At the time, the EU’s commitment to ensuring that access to UK waters would remain a key bargaining chip in the trade deal negotiations, may have gone some way towards allaying concerns in an already struggling industry.

In the new economic reality imposed by a global pandemic however, fears are re-emerging; my ongoing communications with people working in the fishing industry indicate unprecedented levels of mistrust and uncertainty.

The European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee, on which I serve as the Greens/EFA group coordinator, has taken a strong line on informing the EU’s negotiating mandate. Since the last reform in 2013, the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has had sustainability and a science-based approach to stock management at its heart. Any deal between the EU and UK needs to do the same and ensure that we will preserve the health and viability of species into the future.

The other key aspect is of course maintaining reciprocal access to each jurisdiction’s waters. A huge amount of fishing is conducted by boats outside their national exclusive economic zones, and the European fishing industry has evolved to fi t this reality, with fishermen tailoring their gear and seeking efficiencies by going to different waters in different seasons.

Without a reciprocal access agreement for UK boats to access EU waters and vice versa, significant numbers of fishermen will end up going to the wall. Failure to agree mutual access could also threaten the CFP by sending displaced boats into other Member States’ waters, increasing political tensions over quota allocation.

On the UK side, their fleet would likely not have the capacity to fish their waters efficiently and would have the issue of finding a new market for the more than 70 percent of fish products they currently export.

“As Greens shadow rapporteur, I am focused on working with the Commission to create a strong reform that will level the playing field and ensure that all fishermen are held to the same rules in a fair and efficient way”

As talks continue, the Parliament will make sure that citizens’ views are heard. The Greens recently reinserted language on sustainability and joint ecological management into François-Xavier Bellamy’s fisheries committee opinion report on recommendations for negotiations for a new partnership with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We aim to ensure that this crucial aspect does not get side-lined.

As the Greens shadow rapporteur on that fi le, I was very happy to secure a huge majority in support of Parliament’s vote in June. One other less considered impact is on the current reform of the Fisheries Control System, the regime of rules, monitoring and enforcement procedures that make the CFP a reality.

As Greens shadow rapporteur, I am focused on working with the Commission to create a strong reform that will level the playing field and ensure that all fishermen are held to the same rules in a fair and efficient way. As on so many other issues, Brexit and its attendant uncertainties threatens that worthy work.

Read the most recent articles written by Grace O’Sullivan - Turning legislation into action

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