As the UK continues to negotiate its withdrawal from the European Union, it is putting in place building blocks to replace those measures that will lost. As I have discussed previously, this includes maintaining or bolstering existing environmental legal protection, enforcement mechanisms and funding, developing a new farming and land use policy to replace the Common Agriculture Policy, but also new arrangements for fisheries. For each of these issues, the test will be whether the new proposals are better, worse or the same for nature as currently provided by the European Union. This week, the UK Government produced new proposals for fisheries and so I have asked my colleague Dr Euan Dunn (Principal Policy Officer for marine issues) to offer his verdict on the Government's plans.
With drafts leaked over recent months, creating a strong sense of déjà vu, few government documents have been so heavily trailed as Defra’s consultation on the fisheries white paper‘Sustainable fisheries for future generations’ launched last Wednesday. First and foremost, it is the scene-setter for the Fisheries Bill, expected in autumn, which will enable the UK, once outside of the EU, to wrest back control of fisheries access to its waters out to 200 nautical miles and have the whip hand on deciding who gets how much fish. Of course, just who these plans are for is already contentious, especially for the Scottish Government with whom major bridge-building is needed to create a sense of shared ownership of the proposals in this paper, far less their execution. Indeed work is needed to smooth the transition of these proposals across all UK administrations.
Danish trawler fishing for sandeels with gannets and kittiwakes (Chris Gomersall, rspb-images.com)
But it is negotiations with the EU on fisheries which most risk making the ambition of this white paper a hostage to fortune. The assertion in the white paper that access to markets can be decoupled from access to quota and waters will be tested to the limit in Brussels and no amount of declaring this distinction now will change that.
However, the media frenzy around repatriating and divvying out fish overlooks that the white paper is a blueprint for a much broader canvas – how to ensure that commercial fishing operates within safe environmental limits. We take encouragement from the Prime Minister’s endorsement that ‘The plans… demonstrate the bright future in store as we build UK fishing industry for future generations by putting the importance of a healthy marine environment at its heart.’ Secretary of State Michael Gove nailed the government’s colours even more firmly to the mast when he said that the ‘UK would be a world leader in managing our resources while protecting the marine environment’.
Since the outset, the RSPB and the other NGOs in Greener UK have been pressing for such an integrated approach, to free fisheries from the silo which the industry has frankly guarded for too long. So as the UK prepares to cast adrift from the Common Fisheries Policy, how well does the white paper stack up on this challenge?
One welcome shift is the recognition throughout the text that ‘The fish in our seas, like our wider marine assets, are a public resource and therefore the rights to catch them are a public asset’. This is an unprecedented declaration by Defra of a wider societal say in the stewardship of our fish resources. Although the white paper hints at change, however, it remains to be seen how equitable the redistribution of quota will be across the inshore and offshore sectors of the fishing community.
The greening of fisheries is also promised: ‘As set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan, we will pursue an ecosystem approach to fisheries management that aims for more sustainable management and accounts for, and seeks to minimise, impacts on non-commercial species and the marine environment’. The paper tells us that the bycatch of marine species including seabirds and cetaceans will be tackled, ‘with the aim of identifying and implementing practical and effective risk-based mitigation’. This needs to translate into a multi-species bycatch strategy if the UK truly aspires to ‘world leader’ status. Moreover, to earn that mantle the goal must be to not just ‘minimise’ but where possible to eliminate bycatch, and in this the white paper falls short of the EU Seabird Plan of Action.
More widely, however, the acid test of the white paper’s avowed commitment to an ecosystem-based approach will be the need for its legal underpinning in the Fisheries Bill. The white paper is vague on this crucial point in saying that the Bill’s provisions will include ‘To require the Secretary of State to develop a policy statement, with Devolved Administration ministers, on how to apply sustainability principles and objectives in fisheries management’.
Failure to give legal teeth to an ecosystem approach will leave UK fisheries less sustainable than the much-maligned Common Fisheries Policy and at odds with international agreements, condemning one of the most vaunted ambitions of the white paper to business as usual.
Likewise, all our environmental legislation including for fisheries will need a robust watchdog to ensure compliance and enforcement of the law. The white paper doesn’t make clear the role of the watchdog but a fit-for-purpose ecosystem approach will need effective oversight. You can find out more about our campaign for a strong green watchdog here.
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