The UK’s fishermen have been let down by Brexit. Despite lofty promises, the trade deal has instead increased burdens and resulted in little to none of the hoped-for benefits. However, now that we’ve left the EU there’s an opportunity for those who care about, and make their living from, our rich coastal ecology to step up and take a leading role in promoting innovative and responsible ways of managing the fishing industry and preserving maritime heritage. In so doing, they could make lemonade out of lemon sole.
Although a relatively small sector of British industry, fishing received a huge amount of political and media attention in Brexit debates. However, ministers have admitted that the fishing deal made as part of a larger UK-EU trade deal fell short of expectations. EU boats will continue to fish in UK waters for several years with a phased out exit plan, though the EU will be free to retaliate should the UK decide to deny all access.
The immediate effects of Brexit on many in Britain’s fishing industry have been rough, as fishermen who were reliant on a large portion of their catch being exported to the EU have been frustrated by stacks of new paperwork and IT system failings brought on by the transition. Scottish shellfish fishermen, for example, have seen thousands of pounds of product wasted as their live catches perished due to the delays. But never mind the disastrous impact it’s had on those affected, politicians have brushed off such disruptions as teething issues.
So what now? Despite these inauspicious beginnings, there is an opportunity to bring about positive change in a post-Brexit world. The increased autonomy grants the UK a unique opportunity to rethink the fishing industry at a time when the future of marine life and ecology, as well as those who make their living from it, is threatened.
Increased autonomy brings with it increased responsibility. Billions of people across the world rely on the resources of the sea, so overfishing is a global problem. Pollution, too, poses a world-wide threat to the ocean’s vast ecosystem. This is why the WTO has plans to introduce a more robust approach to deal with fishing subsidies, setting out the language of a framework for tackling ocean resource misuse and negligence with sanctions and prohibitions. Leaving the EU does not cut the UK off from these other binding global commitments, but provides an opportunity to take a leading role in the crafting of such inevitable policy. Actively participating as an individual nation will put the UK in a better position to employ its depth of experience and knowledge, as well as ensure international rules will work to preserve UK waters, and in turn its fishermen.
Domestically, the UK has the chance to address the outdated fishing quota system, catch limits for individual boats, to make sure it reflects today’s environment and challenges. It must take advantage not only of scientific data, but also of the local knowledge of the fishermen who see first-hand the effects of fishing on fish stocks and coasts.
Quotas are complicated and legally-murky. Moreover, they vary greatly between the UK’s devolved powers. As of 2018, over a quarter of the country’s fishing quota was owned by five families, and in England a large portion is foreign-owned. There is much debate over the efficiency and consequences of allocation. Brexit is a chance to properly take stock of the quota system to see what’s working and what isn’t, and to take into account marine and community health in a changed world.
There will also be a vital role for the UK as consumers of fish. As exports to the EU are likely to take a sustained hit, it will also be important for British people, from our world-class chefs to our home cooks, to rethink our own relationship with the seafood harvested at home.
Lockdowns fuelled an already expanding desire for locally-sourced food, and forced lots of fishermen who once sold abroad or to restaurant chains to pivot to their local communities, introducing may to the glut of wonderful seafood available on their doorsteps. This requires the British public to embrace fish and shellfish they may not be as familiar with and perhaps to be a little more adventurous with their cooking and eating.
Brexit will not be the immediate fix for the UK fishing industry’s woes that politicians promised. But it’s still an opportunity to be free from the nets of bureaucracy and entrenched interests in an industry that is undeniably important to the spirit and culture of the British Isles. Taking advantage of local knowledge and promoting sustainable and smart fishing will allow the UK to take a leading role on this global issue, while maintaining an important part of our heritage for years to come.