We need a new manifesto outlining a solid fisheries policy and a Sustainable Fisheries Bill for post-Brexit Britain in the next two years. Sustainable Fish Cities Campaign Coordinator Ruth Westcott sets out an alarming picture of what’s at stake in the upcoming snap General Election.

These are frustrating times for marine conservationists and the fishing industry, as the Great Repeal Bill threatens to overturn what progress has been made to preserve our fish stocks with the introduction of a new Common Fisheries Policy in 2014. As Andrew Charles from the Scottish Seafood Processors Federation recently commented on BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth, ‘“We are leaving [the common fisheries policy] just at the point that it is working.” But there is action we can take to limit damage and instead create the legal framework for thriving fisheries, and a case for developing a clear plan for a sustainable fishing policy that guarantees that EU laws will be changed only with proper democratic and scientific review and oversight.

What does the Great Repeal Bill mean for fisheries?

The Great Repeal Bill White Paper (released 30th March) confirmed that the EU Common Fisheries Policy will be copied and pasted into UK law when we leave the EU in March 2019, along with ‘the whole body of existing EU environmental law’. This is a promising signal that the UK will continue to use EU systems, established with UK input and agreement, that have seen fishing stocks begin to recover.

Unfortunately, this is not nearly enough to secure the precarious future of UK fishing. There are worrying proposals in the White Paper (to be confirmed in the Great Repeal Bill) that, if passed, would allow, in a number of circumstances, Government to unilaterally change or dismantle these recently transferred EU laws without the proper democratic scrutiny of Parliament or scientific oversight, before March 2019.

There are two particularly concerning areas. Firstly, laws that don’t neatly copy and paste into domestic policy (for example, because they involve participation in EU-wide systems and EU agencies) could be altered to change what the new relationship looks like or to determine whether we opt in or out. The crux of the EU Common Fisheries Policy is joint agreement about how to share quotas, including joint negotiation and data-sharing. Opting in or out of these EU relationships would have a profound impact on how well controlled the overall EU fishing effort is, and must therefore only be done with full consultation and scrutiny. Fishing is also subject to regulation by the EU Fisheries Control Agency, and the White Paper seems to suggest that we could opt out of this regulatory body without full proper consultation or replacement with an alternative (see Great Repeal Bill White Paper, section 1.14, 3.3, 3.9,3.13). This would threaten the inspection and surveillance of fishing boats.

Secondly, if a deal is negotiated with the EU, UK law could be changed to accommodate the deal. There is significant enthusiasm amongst the fishing industry to negotiate a new deal on UK fishing rights as part of leaving the EU – to win a greater share of the total allowable catches for UK boats. Fishing could, consequently, fall into part of a negotiated deal, and under the proposals suggested in the White Paper, significant chunks of UK fishing law could be changed to take account of the new deal (see Great Repeal Bill White Paper, section 1.16, 3.3, 3.9,3.13).

Spring 2017, the point at which we formally leave the EU, will bring further risks to the erosion of effective and sustainable marine policy. This is because whichever government is in power, after the snap election, will have the opportunity to alter the EU laws that have just been transferred over, and the Repeal Bill contains strong hints that this will be allowed through secondary legislation. This could be by a committee, by a single minister, or worse – by a group of unelected advisors behind closed doors.

So far Labour have promised that they will “defend and extend EU environmental protections”. However, the Liberal Democrats don’t appear to have an official policy on maintaining EU environmental law at present. It is not yet clear which line on sustainable fisheries the Conservative party will choose. A 2015 election manifesto commitment to maintaining the discard ban (which outlaws the wasteful practice of throwing fish back into the sea once it has been caught) has not yet been re-confirmed. Neither has their proposed approach to EU negotiations on fisheries, beyond platitudes. And there are very worrying calls from influential Tory politicians (including Lord Lawson and Iain Duncan Smith) to use Brexit to scrap important environmental laws. Earlier this month, they called for the Habitats Directive – which provides vital protection for species and natural systems – to be one of the first thrown into a Brexit bonfire of standards.

There are some key policies ‘at risk’:

  • Measures to reduce climate change and the trade in illegally caught wildlife. The current government recently told departments to ‘scale down’ efforts in these areas in order to forge new trade deals with Africa and Latin America, a worrying insight into the Brexit deals to come and potentially a disaster for endangered marine species like Bluefin tuna and sharks.
  • Important individual rights and protections, such as the right of fishers and other citizens to access environmental data, the right to be consulted and the right to have access to justice and seek redress. These principles are contained in the Aarhus Convention, and we have no confirmation that this will be transposed into UK law or retained when we leave the EU.
  • The commitment to restoring fish stocks to sustainable levels was a precious 2015 conservative party manifesto pledge (see page 23). The snap General Election will see the Tories stand with a new manifesto, and we’ve had no assurances that this commitment has survived the draft process. For Labour, it is unclear whether this policy will come within the definition of EU Environmental law that is to be saved.
  • Robust EU fishing regulations, especially the requirement to allocate fishing rights based on environmental and social criteria is a key part of the Common Fisheries Policy, fought for by small-scale fisheries and NGOs. Government has faced a barrage of criticism, and has even been taken to court, over not implementing this EU policy It would be a huge concern if it was removed all together. EU law also currently bans bottom trawling, ensures UK boats fish sustainably in international waters and requires clear consumer labelling on fish packaging. It would be incredibly damaging to fishing stocks to lose these protections.
  • Funding for the transition to sustainable fishing, including providing new or improved fishing gear, monitoring equipment and on-land facilities such as docks and processing sites. No party has yet guaranteed to continue such vital funding.
  • Opportunities for more local management of stocks. It is still unclear how legislation and standards will apply in the devolved administrations after the UK’s departure from the EU. We must recognise clearly the need for shared management of common resources like fish and shellfish and respect for scientifically-set catch limits.

What does Government need to do?

We need a firm commitment in the manifestos of all the major political parties that our future fishing policy will be governed by the robust sustainability principles that have been outlined below. Healthy fish stocks and marine environments could mean an extra £1 billion for the UK economy; but marine-wrecking policies could destroy that opportunity, as well as our precious ecosystems, forever.

After the snap General Election on 8th June, the new UK government must publish a new Sustainable Fisheries Act, and incorporate marine sustainability issues fully into the widely called for new Good Food Act.

We must get a watertight guarantee from Government that any changes to fishing policy that go beyond simple technical tweaks must be open to due process. That means proper scientific scrutiny, public consultation and full open and democratic process in Parliament, including a full debate and a vote by MPs. Anything less would risk endangering our marine life and already much-depleted fishing industry.

What you can do

Every UK political party needs to set out its commitment to sustainable fisheries, to secure that extra £1 billion for the UK economy, and to ensure that our children and grandchildren can enjoy fish and chips in a thriving coastal community, long into the future. Ask your MP to stand up for sustainable fishing in the June 2017 General Election. Let’s vote for a better fishing future.

Click here to see what a Sustainable Fisheries Act could look like.

Photograph: Simon & His Camera

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