Brexit: What's that got to do with the price of fish?

Cornish Lads are Fishermen, they are miners too but when the fish and tin are gone what are Cornish Lads to do?


The annual Fishing Quota debate was held in Parliament today and this year MPs took the chance to debate “The Future of the UK Fishing Industry after the Brexit Vote”.

The debate was scheduled ahead of a EU meeting on 12 Dec to decide, for what should be one last time before Brexit, the fishing quotas for the next year or two. Today’s session in Parliament was the first opportunity since the referendum that MPs have had to discuss just how Brexit will affect one of Cornwall’s most important industries.

The debate was sponsored and opened by Melanie Onn , Labour MP for Grimsby who in her opening speech said that of all industries the Fishing fleet has most to lose or gain from Brexit.

This is Brexit on a most practical level, where ships will literally no longer be allowed to pass in the night.

Ms Onn used her speech to call on the Government to put the fishing industry at the top of their agenda during Brexit negotiations, arguing that if it is not given priority the Government will be unable to keep the Leave campaign’s promises.

“We simply can’t assume that being free from Common Fisheries Policy regulations and quotas will mean allowing our fishermen to do whatever they want” she told the house, also warning of the possibility post Brexit of a return of trading conditions that led to the infamous Cod Wars of the 60s and 70s.

Grimsby MP Melanie Onn

She concluded

Fishermen will want to hear today that the government understands the need to prioritise their industry in order to deliver on what has been promised

MPs representing the four corners of the UK fishing fleet spent over three hours discussing the future of the UK fishing industry in the wake of the Brexit vote.

George Eustice, MP for Camborne/Redruth was manning the dispatch box on behalf of the government in his role as DEFRA Minister for Fisheries.

Cornish MPs Derek Thomas and Scott Mann spoke in the debate. Traditionally, the annual debate is also a chance for the House to pay tribute to those lost at sea and to the RNLI.

During the EU referendum campaign, Vote Leave blamed the European Union for the decline of the UK fishing industry, and claimed that Brexit would revive the industry.

Responding to this afternoon’s debate Andrew George of the Liberal Democrats said “Of course it’s too early to tell what solutions will emerge following Brexit negotiations, but of those things we can be sure of, the claims by the Leave campaign that Britain would be able to 1. remove foreign vessels from UK territorial waters and 2. abolish the hated quota system, neither of these will come to pass. They might as well have painted those wholly undeliverable claims on the side of their red campaign Battlebus”.

George Eustice, who will represent the UK for the fourth time at the December negotiations, campaigned strongly for Leave during the referendum and said at the time that leaving the EU would allow Britain to “re-establish national control for 200 nautical miles” of the waters surrounding Britain. He started speaking on behalf of the government today by paying tribute to the 9 UK fisherman who have lost their lives in the previous year.

He continued “We are committed to acting on the wishes of the British people and we will withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy and put into place a new fisheries regime.

As an independent coastal state outside of the EU the UK would be fully responsible under international law for control of waters in our exclusive economic zone and the management of the resources within it”

 Derek Thomas MP whose constituency covers the key fishing ports of Newlyn and St Ives spoke early in the debate and laid out his position to the Government:

“Our negotiating position could not be clearer”  he began

“The EU should have no reason to doubt that we will take back our fishing rights under international law and it is for them to negotiate with us their share of total allowable catch in UK waters.

It is only fair that fisherman both in the UK and around Europe have clarity about the future of their industry in UK waters.

The fishing industry in the UK is united. Together they see the Referendum result as providing the best chance to right the wrong that over decades has reduced our fleet so dramatically and made a job that is already tough, so much tougher still”

Derek Thomas MP for St Ives

Mr Thomas outlined to the house the most important points he thought the government should negotiate on behalf of the fleet as we exit the EU:

  • The UK must ensure full and absolute control of UK waters out to the 200 mile limit. Fishing opportunities, access and the regulatory regime will then be determined by the UK Government.
  • The UK must secure a greater share of Total Allowable Catches in UK waters
  • .The UK must secure the continued tariff free and unrestricted access to European markets
  • The fishing industry must be at the heart of Government negotiations and the future management of UK fisheries. To deliver a positive outcome for fishing it is essential that the experience and knowledge of the fishing industry is harnessed and used during and after negotiations to leave the EU.

“The UK must achieve a standalone fisheries policy” concluded Mr Thomas,

“The Minister will fully understand that Cornish fleet is unique in its diversity.

It is better to take a little more time and safeguard the integrity of Cornish fisheries. As the proposal stands, every bass caught in a net will be discarded dead. Every bass caught in a beam trawl will be discarded dead and any bass caught in trawl over 1% catch will be discarded dead. It makes no sense to penalise fishing vessels in West Cornwall who pick up bass as a by-catch, by forcing them to discard this valuable fish.

Sea Bass

I would ask the Minister to be bold about the UK’s fishing industry post our exit from the EU and to fight hard on behalf of our fisherman, particularly those operating in mixed-fisheries, at the December Council”

Prior to the referendum, the vast majority of fishermen said they would vote for Brexit. Some believed that post-Brexit they would be able to catch more fish, however, such an outcome will probably depend on the relative strength of the UK’s bargaining position – and it is not clear how strong our position is on this or how it might be affected by the wider Brexit negotiations.

The Out campaign made some bold claims on the future of fishing and the majority of fishermen in Cornwall were convinced and voted to leave.

“Brexit offers ‘opportunity for radical change” said Camborne MP and Fisheries Minister George Eustice  on 9 September 2016. He also was quoted during the campaign:

“The fishing industry has a once in a generation opportunity for radical change….. Brexit has provided a unique chance to go back to first principles when re-establishing fishing policy”

“Leaving the EU provides opportunities to renegotiate the UK’s quota shares and access arrangements, whilst simultaneously retaining access to European markets on reasonable terms”

Fisheries Minister and Camborne MP George Eustice

Scott Mann chose to use today’s debate to speak about the depleting Bass stocks and called for support for recreational anglers as well as commercial fisheries. He also called for research to develop ideas to pay the fishing fleet to clean up the seas and landing rubbish as well as fish.

Negotiating fish quotas post-Brexit 

Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter claimed that fisherman voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU because of the long held perceived grievance of getting a terrible deal when joining the ‘common market’ and now warned that “just as they were done on the way in, the danger is that they will now get done on the way out“.

Until Brexit actually happens the UK’s fishing industry is regulated at an EU level by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)

Year round ‘the ministry’ monitors landings of quota stocks and compares the amount caught and landed against total quota allocation. This is used to inform decisions about quota swaps, changes to catch limits and closing fisheries.

On 27 October, the European Commission published its proposed fishing opportunities for the Atlantic and North Sea for 2017. The Commission proposed to maintain or increase the current fishing quotas for 42 stocks which are in good health, and reduce catches for 28 stocks which are faring poorly.

Fish species proposed for increase in some fishing areas include Anglerfish, Haddock, Common Sole, Hake, Horse Mackerel, Norway Lobster.

However there remains concern for the Sea Bass stocks which are still in decline in the Channel, Celtic Sea, Irish Sea and the southern North Sea. The Commission explains that “this is not surprising”, as the emergency measures first introduced in 2015 “are expected to take between 4 and 7 years to produce effects and to be reflected in the assessment.”

Key issues for the fishing industry in 2017

Discard ban

The discarding of unwanted fish at sea is one of the most controversial issues of the CFP, and a key reform for the 2014-20 CFP was the implementation of a phased ban on discarding fish. Many MPs described the lunacy of discarding up to 50% of catch, with one MP quoting a figure of £1bn worth of fish discarded by the UK fishing fleet alone. This ban has been phased in through 2015 and 2016. And it will continue in 2017. From 2015, fishermen targeting pelagic quota species had to land all the fish they caught. In 2016, the discard ban was extended to demersal fisheries. Demersal fish swim at or near the bottom of the sea (e.g. flounder, sole, turbot, plaice, and halibut).

In European fisheries about 1.7 million tonnes of fish are discarded annually, corresponding to 23% of total catches. However, in some fisheries, discard rates can be up to 90% of catches. Discarding describes the practice of returning unwanted catch to the sea—either dead or alive—because: they are too small; the fisherman has no quota; or because of certain catch composition rules (fishermen may catch a range of marine organisms for which there is no local market, and therefore no incentive to land).

Maximum Sustainable Yield

The reformed CFP included a legally binding commitment to fishing at sustainable levels (the Maximum Sustainable Yield) where possible from 2015 and everywhere by 2020).  George Eustice asserted that the UK Government played an instrumental role in ensuring that the reformed CFP contained this legal requirement for fishing rates

Quota for the under-10 metre fleet

Some fishermen are concerned about the process of quota allocation, in particular the low proportion of quota allocated to smaller boats. The under ten metre fleet are considered to be more environmentally friendly than larger boats.

Fishy Facts

  • Landings: UK vessels land around 400,000 tonnes of fish each year in the UK, and between 200,000 and 300,000 tonnes abroad.
  • Landings by the UK fleet valued £775m  in 2015, around a 7% reduction on 2014. The value of landings by the UK fleet has increased in recent years, but is still 11% lower in real terms than in 1994.
  • The total number of fishermen in the UK is around 12,000, down from around 20,000 in the mid-1990s.
  • The number of fishing vessels in the UK fleet has fallen by 28% since 1996.
  • The UK fishing fleet remained seventh largest in the EU in terms of vessel numbers, with the second largest capacity and fourth largest engine power
  • The UK is a net importer of fish, with net imports of around 238,000 tonnes in 2015, worth £1.3bn.
  • Seventy three per cent of the quantity landed by the UK fleet was caught by vessels over 24 metres in length which accounted for 4 per cent of the total number of UK vessels.
  • World figures for 2014 showed that China caught the largest amount of fish, 15.0 million tonnes. Indonesia had the second largest catch at 6.0 million tonnes.