EXPLAINED: What is the fishing row about Brexit and Scotland all about?

Posted On: 
31st October 2018

A row about fish may seem an unlikely hook for journalists to reel in their readers - but furious debate over seafood after Brexit has opened up a whole new angle for newsrooms.

Fishing is a major part of the Brexit debate
Credit: 
PA Images

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL?

The spat hinges on the Commons Fisheries Policy - an EU mechanism which sets rules on the catching of fish. Under the CFP all European fishing boats have equal access to EU waters to ensure fair competition. The EU gets to say which boats get to fish where and for how long. That annoys some people, who argue other EU states get a better deal through accessing the large fishing area around the UK than it gets from accessing the smaller fishing areas of other countries. Tensions around the issue were laid bare in August this year when the so-called Scallop Wars were sparked between French and British fishermen. The CFP also dictates how many fish of each type can be caught in order to make the industry more sustainable - yet another bugbear for those making a living out of fishing.

 

BUT WHO CARES?

Of course - most Brits are unlikely to hear about these complaints unless they live in one of the many major fishing communities in the UK. Scottish coastal towns provide more than half the fish caught in the UK, while other areas such as Cornwall and the town of Grimsby are key. Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishemen's Federation (SFF), told PoliticsHome: "Under the CFP the UK is permitted to harvest approximately 30% of this resource. Scottish fishermen feel aggrieved because they have to watch as the other 70% is taken by boats from other EU countries. That catch could spawn a much bigger UK industry, with thousands more jobs and revitalised coastal communities." In 2016 UK boats brought 701 thousand tonnes of fish back to land with a value of £936m. It is a major industry which is largely governed by the EU - so the changes that will come after Brexit are set to be a game-changer.

 

HOW DOES BREXIT COME INTO IT?

The Government has insisted the UK will be “fully responsible for the access and management of its waters” once the Brexit transition period ends and can tailor its fishing policies in a way that best suits its needs. Fishing is devolved, so Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also get control over how they choose to manage their waters. At the moment is is unclear what the Government wants to do - and there are many international pressures since waters span such vast areas.

However there could be some downsides too. When the UK leaves the EU it will also be cut off from multimillion euro subsidies it has been allocated for its fishing industry - meaning it could have to offer more of its own support. Michael Gove has admitted the UK industry does not have the capacity to catch and process all the fish in British waters anyway, so there will likely be some role for EU vessels in the future.

 

SO WHY NOW?

Theresa May sparked a fresh row about fisheries when she announced that the Brexit transition period could be extended. The PM said “a matter of months” extra might help the UK strike a deal on the Northern Irish border row. But staying in the transitional period for longer means staying in the Common Fisheries Policy for longer - and the industry is itching to get out. Their desperation puts huge pressure on politicians who represent major fishing areas. One of those is - of course - Scottish Secretary David Mundell, who has said quitting the CFP on the originally planned date was “essential”. He has been backed up by Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson and a number of the Tory MPs in Scotland - piling huge pressure on the Prime Minister.

Mr Armstrong from the SFF added: "There is simply no case for continued membership of the CFP beyond that presently proposed, and that has been made very clear to the Prime Minister and other senior ministers."

Fisheries Minister George Eustice is up before the Scottish Affairs Committee on Wednesday - so expect all of theses issues to come to the surface.