Fisheries minister Mark Spencer (pictured) has refused to give any assurance that the UK will have an exclusive 12nm limit when the Brexit fisheries deal is renegotiated in 2026, reports Tim Oliver.
Appearing before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee last week, the minister was asked what work is underway on quota allocations and access after 2026, including access for foreign vessels within the UK 6-12nm limit.
Failure to obtain an exclusive 12-mile limit under the Brexit TCA was a major disappointment for the UK industry.
Sheryll Murray, MP for South East Cornwall, who chaired the EFRA session, told the minister there was ‘a very, very unfair share-out’ of access to the UK 6-12nm limit by EU vessels, relative to the access the UK gets in return to EU countries’ limits.
She asked the minister to confirm that the sole access that UK fishermen currently have inside six miles will be extended out to 12.
She pointed out that the London Convention, which pre-dates the CFP, gave access to the UK 6-12nm zone only to specific named vessels from other member states.
“This was changed under European legislation, and there was no reason why we couldn’t say once the vessel has outlasted its access life and is sold or scrapped, it loses its rights to access. It would be good for you to look at this,” she told the minister.
“Fishermen and women thought they were promised that until the trade agreement was completed, and I think you have a duty, really, to try to rectify that. It’s probably not the view of the committee, but it’s my personal view, and I’m asking you to look at it, particularly since the former secretary of state [George Eustice] was on the local media on Sunday saying he didn’t feel that we had achieved a good enough deal originally when it was negotiated.”
Sheryll Murray pointed out that the energy section of the Brexit TCA is also up for review in 2026, and will thereafter move to annual negotiations. “We don’t want to see any trade-off for access to our fish stocks for access to energy,” she told the minister.
Mark Spencer said that the ambition was to secure ‘the best possible deal for the UK’.
“I don’t want to go into that negotiation – if I’m still fortunate enough to be the fisheries minister – by starting with an ultimatum, but we’re very much minded to secure the best possible deal we can,” he said.
Speaking more generally on work on the 2026 negotiations, he said he was talking to the devolved administrations ‘to work out how we’re going to work together’, but that conversations with the EU had not yet started.
He noted that there will be a general election before then, and ‘that can have a huge impact on the direction of travel’, but added: “There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes, in the civil service.”
The minister said the last two or three years had demonstrated that co-operating with neighbours was beneficial, and that there was ‘huge advantage’ in allowing Norwegian boats to come into UK waters if UK boats can accesss Norwegian waters. “We recognise borders, fish don’t. Constructive co-operation with our neighbours will benefit our fleet in the most positive way,” he said.
“For me, Brexit wasn’t about pulling up the drawbridge and building a fence round the UK, it was about giving us the control to say who can and who can’t fish in our waters, to be able to negotiate with our neighbours and friends a fair trading arrangement – and I think that’s what we’re seeing.”
Senior Defra official Mike Dowell, deputy director for EU fisheries negotiations and policy, who also attended the session, said that Defra was speaking to key stakeholders in the industry as well as the environmental NGOs to discuss priorities and objectives for 2026. “It will come around very quickly, and we want to undertake as much engagement as possible, and that is already underway,” he said.
Mark Spencer was also questioned on when parliament will pass the statutory instrument (SI) that is necessary before UK fishermen can catch and land the spurdog quota agreed for 2023 and 2024. He was told that Cornish fishermen are unavoidably taking large amounts as bycatch and that they are also concerned at the impact of growing spurdog stocks on other species.
The minister said EU fishermen can now catch their spurdog quotas and that he was therefore ‘very keen to get on with it’, but that the timing of the legislation was a matter for the Westminster business managers.
“I’m told it will be relatively soon,” he said.
Spatial pressures a ‘massive issue’
“Spatial squeeze is a massive issue that is really coming to bite us in the backside,” fisheries minister Mark Spencer told MPs.
Questioned by the EFRA Committee about the impacts on the fishing industry of offshore wind farms and Marine Protected Areas, he said: “Clearly our oceans are a great opportunity for energy production. There are huge carbon sink opportunities for seagrass, seaweed – and of course a great opportunity to go and harvest fresh fish. Obviously we’re not going to be able to do all that in the same bit of water, so that is going to bring its own challenges moving forward.”
The minister was asked whether he agreed with the SFF/NFFO-commissioned ‘spatial squeeze’ report finding that the industry is under enormous pressure from offshore renewable energy and Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs).
“There is that pressure, there’s no doubt about it, and it’s probably even more challenging for Scottish fishermen,” said the minister.
“There’s a huge drive for renewable energy, and you want these MPAs to be there as seeding areas for our fish, as well as improving our diversity in the ocean.
“We’ve got make sure we work to try to balance those requirements to allow our fishing fleet to be able to continue to harvest fish. That means fishermen need to be included when applications [for wind farms] are being considered, and the government needs to have its ears open to those conversations with the fishing sector – which I’ve done on a regular basis.”
Asked about industry concerns over the impending introduction of HPMAs, the minister said he was not in a position to announce what the government is going to do in those areas, but that he expected the government would be able to respond to last year’s consultation on HPMAs by the spring.
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.