For much of the UK’s fishing industry and for seafood buyers in Europe, the final act of Britain’s departure from the European Union has been a rough landing.
As the transition period ended with 2020, the UK became subject to the same rules and requirements as any other third country trading with the European Union. As Britain’s fishing industry had during the referendum campaign been Brexit’s poster child, used to highlight every wrong that could be put right, as January dawned it immediately became the focus of exactly how new and different the relationship with Europe is.
The media were flooded with tales of stranded cargoes of fish, outraged exporters struggling to deal with new paperwork, substantial losses and long-established traders facing ruin. This is a situation that affects business as a whole, not just the seafood industry. But the highly perishable nature of seafood and the reliance on prompt delivery mean that fishing inevitably became an early victim of Brexit.
British boats have been tied up as market access has dried up, and in Europe there are also fishing vessels that have spent the whole of this year so far at the quayside as their fishing opportunities still have yet to be clarified.
Aside from the jaw-dropping moments as Britain’s Minister for Fisheries admitted to having been too busy with Christmas preparations to read the trade deal on the day it was concluded, and a senior Parliamentary figure made the risible claim that fish in UK waters had become “better and happier now they are British,” the UK government is seen as having thrown its fishermen under a bus, while presenting the trade agreement with the EU as a serious triumph of international diplomacy by securing tariff-free trade. But the devil is in the detail, in particular in the fine detail and complexity of the extensive bureaucracy that is part and parcel of this new third country status, and it has been a hard realisation.
Few industries will come out of this unscathed – especially an industry as highly international as fishing and seafood – and others clearly won’t survive.
The disappointment within the UK fishing industry and the feeling that fishing has been sacrificed is very visible. The gains achieved in quota shares are nowhere near what the UK industry had hoped to see, and in Europe there is similar frustration as many European fishermen also feel that they have been sacrificed to achieve a wider trade deal.
For the UK it’s not easy to see who gains much. Quota lifts are chiefly in pelagic species that will flow to one of the fishing industry’s more prosperous sectors. Gains that have been achieved, which come with considerable downsides, won’t make their way to the sectors of UK fishing that have traditionally been short of opportunities and rely overwhelmingly on non-quota species to survive.
The gains have will go to those who are already millionaires, while the sectors that so emphatically supported Brexit and campaigned hard for it are likely to find themselves no better off, while their markets have become more distant and harder to supply.
Hunting for the gains
Operations manager Martyn Youell at Devon fishing company Waterdance commented that since the turn of the year there have been export difficulties associated with Brexit, in addition to the Covid restrictions that had already had some major effects.
“It’s disappointing, as Brexit had been touted as bringing so many gains for the fishing industry,” he said.
“But we’re still hunting for those gains. We’re hoping that in the long term there will be gains, but in the short term there’s a lot of disruption.”
He added that a real concern is the loss of the quota trade that was possible under the CFP, under which POs in member states could arrange swaps.
“That has been a flexible way of matching quotas to when and where they are needed, and this was maybe one of the redeeming features of the CFP. Now it seems that this will be at government level, with member states taking this to the EU Commission. It looks like this could be through a specialist committee that could only meet a couple of times a year, so this would not be reactive or flexible. So this seems to be a retrograde step,” he said.
“There’s a loss of clarity and we have an uncertain picture ahead of us. We’re optimistic. But right now we are facing a lot of difficulties.”
Spanish industry organisation Cepesca has predicted that the Spanish fleet is set to lose more than €54 million in revenue over the coming five years, following the agreement reached between the EU and the UK.
According to Cepesca’s analysis, this figure could turn out to be on the low side if the currently provisional TACs for some species are revised downwards during further negotiations.
Cepesca’s estimate is that the impact by the end of the transitional period of five and a half years will be about €54.3 million euros, with a loss of 4318 tonnes of main target species.
“Although at the beginning we welcomed the agreement with some relief, taking as a reference the reduction percentages based on the relative stability of catches that were provided by the Government, as we translate that political nomenclature To real day-to-day figures, we note a serious short-term damage, to which is added the uncertainty that will come from 2026,” said Cepesca’s general secretary Javier Garat.
“The impact of the loss of more than €54.3 million euros is substantial for the owners, crew and their families, shore workers and for the indirect jobs that are generated by the 88 vessels on the NEAFC roster and the four that fish for cod in Svalbard, and are based in Galicia, Cantabria and the Basque Country.”
Looking to the longer term
What the longer-term picture will look like when the 2026 transition is here remains a cause for concern for both European and UK fishing sectors.
There are those who are optimistic about future negotiations from 2026 onwards, according to NFFO chief executive Barrie Deas.
“And there are pessimists, such as myself, who feel that due to trade pressures there won’t be any straying too far from the present situation. The UK could find itself caught up in a perpetual groundhog day, caught up in an asymmetric power relationship that subverts the UK’s rights under law,” he said, commenting that the UK government capitulated on fishing in striking the trade agreement with the EU, and there is no guarantee this won’t be a regular occurrence in future.
“From the end of the five-and-a-half year transitional period, the European Commission, on behalf of the Member States, will have to negotiate each year with the United Kingdom, for access to both waters and quotas. And from that point on, both parties will have to negotiate TACs of the 119 shared stocks,” Cepesca general secretary Javier Garat pointed out, commenting that in addition to concerns over joint management of stocks to ensure sustainability, the outlook generates enormous uncertainty for companies in the fishing sector.
“They do not know what quotas they will be able to count on from 2026 or if all vessels will have access to UK waters. Likewise, the impact it will have on the Common Fisheries Policy is unknown, as well as on quota exchanges between the different countries that fish in UK waters, as from next year, they will have fewer fishing opportunities for possible exchanges,” he said.
‘National governments of the EU and the European Commission needs to rise to the occasion and defend the European fishing industry. This is the only way to build trust in institutions and avoid increasing Euroscepticsm within the fishing sector.”
Five years is a long time – and much can change in a few years, not least with the movement for Scottish independence gathering strength and implications for the future of the United Kingdom.
There’s a prospect that Scotland could become an independent state, one which would more than likely be given an easy ride if it were to apply for EU membership, with some far-reaching implications for UK fisheries.
It’s debatable how economically sustainable the UK’s position is as the only nation in western Europe outside the European Economic Area – and having experienced being out in the cold as a third country dealing with its main trade partner, there’s likely to be plenty of pressure on the UK government to align more closely to the EU, rather than further divergence.