This week’s Political Podium is by George Eustice MP, the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, who served as fisheries minster from 2015 to 2019…

I always remember a representative of the industry once telling a Select Committee in parliament that ‘fisheries is not rocket science – it’s way more complicated than that!’

Because fisheries policy is highly technical and complex, policy-makers tend to delay difficult decisions, put in place temporary arrangements, and pursue the path of least resistance on a temporary basis. Quite quickly, the concrete sets, unsatisfactory temporary arrangements become permanent rules, and the chance for reform is lost.

There was no better example of this ‘concrete- setting’ phenomenon than the system of relative stability in EU quota shares during the EU era. When quotas were created, the EU could think of no better way than to look at the historical track records of member states during a reference period.

Some EU countries, like France, allegedly had better records of their catch than British fishermen – or at least found French officials more amenable to accepting poor-quality records, so were given more quota than they should have had.

Meanwhile, our civil service did the right thing and followed a strict interpretation of the rules. In post-war Britain, the UK long-distance fleet had also just been excluded from its traditional fishing grounds in Iceland, but was then told it didn’t have a track record to fish in its own home waters. The die was cast for decades of unfairness and aggravation.

On several occasions, the UK considered arguing for a change to relative stability to make it fairer. However, after qualified majority voting (QMV) was introduced, there was a basic mathematical problem: the only countries that would support the UK in getting rid of relative stability were those countries who wanted a larger share of UK resources for themselves in return.

The lid was therefore always put back on the Pandora’s box, and it was concluded that only by leaving the EU could the Gordian knot actually be cut.

The final trade agreement with the EU when we left did not achieve as much as had been hoped, but the EU fleet was required to cede a significant chunk of its quota, leading to a 25% increase in the size of UK quota.

But even that step towards fairness caused tension. That new quota for the UK fleet has now largely been distributed. The pelagic sector did well from the settlement, and the additional whitefish quota substantially boosted the inshore U10 fleet.

While the agreement was not perfect, it was also temporary, expiring in 2026. At that point, all EU access rights expire, and the stage is set for another negotiation. How do we ensure that the concrete does not set around the current arrangement in time-honoured fashion?

The answer lies in the unbridled regulatory freedom we have as an independent coastal state. During the EU era, technical conservation regulations were decided by the EU, and we had no right to set rules around gear types, area closures or minimum landing sizes inside our own EEZ. Today, we have an unbridled power to do what is right for our marine environment throughout the entire UK EEZ, without EU approval.

There are multiple areas where these new regulatory powers could be unilaterally exercised on all vessels to improve the health of fish stocks. We could increase minimum landing sizes for certain flatfish species, or for skates and rays in the Bristol Channel; we could close down TACs for industrial stocks like sandeel in the North Sea; and we could introduce new gear and power restrictions on fly- shooters off East Anglia.

We could insist on new gear types identified by Cefas as being optimal for the Celtic Sea mixed fishery; we could require cameras on all vessels seeking access to UK waters to prevent cheating on the landing obligation; and we could introduce new closures to protect spawning grounds.

There is a compelling scientific argument for every one of these measures, and there is no requirement whatsoever to seek the agreement of the EU. All we need is to give reasonable notice of the action we intend to take as a sovereign nation.

It will generally be the case that the action needed to do what is right for the health of fish stocks will fall more heavily on the EU fleets, since they are generally less sustainable. The Belgian fleet would probably not welcome changes to the minimum landing size for rays in the Bristol Channel; the Danes may not welcome our decision to close the sandeel fishery; Dutch seiners would not welcome our decision to restrict gear types off East Anglia; and the French fleet would probably not welcome our insistence that they all install cameras on vessels as a licence condition of their access to the UK EEZ.

Neither the EU nor any of these countries have any right to prevent the UK from acting unilaterally in these areas, but the UK government, by doing the right thing for the marine environment, would simultaneously create greater conditionality on access to UK waters and, thus, close the gap for the negotiation in 2026.

The government must therefore act now and utilise the regulatory freedoms secured outside the EU to deliver for our fish stocks and pave the way for the next renegotiation. It may make some Foreign Office types feel uncomfortable, but we must think ahead and not allow a craven ‘now is not the time’ mindset to take hold, nor revert to the path of least resistance, otherwise the concrete will set, and the opportunity will be lost.

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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