Owen Paterson: How we can reset our fisheries policy – and empower local communities

Posted On: 
16th January 2017

A successful fisheries policy needs local control, and Brexit offers us an exciting opportunity to start afresh 

As shadow Agriculture Minister I travelled all around the British Isles between 2003-2005, and saw tragically damaged fishing communities and degraded marine environments. I also visited Norway, the Faroes, Iceland, Newfoundland, the east coast of the United States and the Falklands; here I saw improving marine environments and prosperous fishing communities.

I stated then that the Common Fisheries Policy is a biological, environmental, economic and social disaster; it is beyond reform. I wrote a Green Paper pulling together all the best ideas that I had learned from successful fishing countries. To implement these we had to first withdraw from the CFP.  

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The CFP forces fishermen to throw back fish dead into the sea if they are over quotas allocated by the EU; it has caused substantial degradation of the marine environment; it has destroyed much of the fishing industry, with compulsory scrapping of modern vessels and has devastated fishing communities.

The fundamental flaw in the CFP has always been that fisheries cannot be managed successfully on a continental scale; they need local control. Issues should be tackled on an international basis only when justified, at a national level when appropriate and otherwise locally.

Brexit offers the most wonderful opportunity, as leaving the European Union will mean replacing the failed CFP with a bespoke British policy, tailored to our own marine environment.

The most crucial aspect of a new policy must be to prevent discarding by replacing the current quota system with days at sea which require all fish caught to be landed.

An EU discard ban has been attempted, but has been ineffective as the central tenet of the CFP, the setting of quotas at a continental level, was not reformed. The EU has implemented a discard ban but it has merely banned the symptom of discards rather than the cause of Quotas. The practical effect of the Discard ban is that discards will be dumped on land rather than at sea. Under the Discard ban, when a vessel runs out of one species it must stop fishing, even if it has adequate quota for others.

An estimated one million tons of fish are thrown back as discards every year, up to a quarter of all fish caught according to some estimates. They are worth £1.6 billion annually or the equivalent of 2 billion fish suppers.

The CFP quotas are set annually on data which are guaranteed to be wholly inaccurate because of discards, as well as being months out of date. Compare this to well-run fisheries which I saw in Norway, Iceland and the Falklands where scientists monitor catches on a daily basis and vessels can be moved on at an hour’s notice if too much of a certain species are being caught. This sort of control can now be given to local fishermen and those managing the local marine environment.

Fish stocks and marine wildlife must be rebuilt and preserved, maximising the economic value of exploitable stocks both in the short and the long term. The ban on industrial fishing must be maintained and a ban on production subsidies must be enforced as we need to promote profitability rather than volume.

Throughout the world I have been highly impressed by continuing developments in the use of selective gear, or the ability to target and capture specific types of marine organisms, allowing unwanted sizes and species to evade capture. I saw selective gear being developed in Manomet, Massachusetts. They are years ahead of development compared to Europe where incredibly the CFP in some cases penalises its use.

In contrast, the USA has employed selective gear in combination with closed areas where fishing is banned entirely. I saw 20 fish stocks taken off the endangered list and a strong revival of haddock, scallops and yellowtail flounder. This is another example of the EU being slow, bureaucratic and unimaginative by actively discouraging the development of new technology.

Once we have left the European Union, local people can work with politicians to set the framework and develop a new fisheries policy. As far as possible we should exude and empower local control in an overall national framework. 

Owen Paterson is Conservative MP for North Shropshire and the former secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs