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“Simon Says” – Is Brexit good for the marine environment?

July 6, 2017

pot caught spider crab velvet crab dive picked scallops rod and line caught bass by E Rance

(Above – pot caught spider crab, velvet crab, dive picked scallops and  rod and line caught bass by E Rance)

Gove’s announcement

You will surely have seen the recent announcement by new Environment Minister Michael Gove that as part of the Brexit process the UK will be taking back access to our waters for fishing.  Many commercial fishermen’s groups have been rubbing their hands with glee because this could mean sole access for British fishermen to our waters, unencumbered by EU laws, restrictions and rights.  However, is this a good thing for the health of our seas and therefore for the fishing industry, including here, in Dorset?

As you can imagine this isn’t as simple as kicking foreigners out of our waters so we can fish them ourselves.  There are issues of rights, different agreements and management.  These must be sorted out if we are to move our fisheries onto a more sustainable basis.

The current situation

There are four main legal regimes or agreements which complicate matters.  From 0 – 6 nm (nautical miles) off our shoreline the living marine resources including fish, shellfish and algae (let’s call them fish stocks for short) are exclusively fished by UK fishermen and managed, usually very well, by the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs) and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO).  In Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight we have the Southern IFCA.  They were set-up under domestic legislation through the 2009 Marine and Coastal Access Act.

Our Southern IFCA is particularly effective and, despite limited resources, is doing a sterling job of balancing the socio-economic needs of commercial fishermen with trying to restore and protect the health of the marine environment on which their livelihoods are dependant.  They set-up regulations based on good science and consultations, and are overseen by local ‘boards’ comprised of people from a wide range of groups and interests.  I for example sit on their board.  So far so good for 0 – 6 nm.

From 6 – 12 nm fishing is managed by the MMO.  Access to fish foolish enough to stray further out than 6nm is governed by the 1964 London Convention which allows fishing boats from France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland to fish our waters in return for access for our boats to fishing grounds in other countries.  These countries are estimated to catch about 10,000 tonnes of fish per year.  Issues such as overfishing, bycatch and habitat damage still occur in this zone.  Gove is proposing that we leave this agreement.

From 12 – 200 nm is our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which is in practice rather less than exclusive as it is governed by the once infamous Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).  However, in recent years the CFP has had some success in curbing some of the more damaging excesses of the fishing industry for example by setting catch limits and tackling bycatch.

We should also not forget the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  It states that countries which share stocks need to collaborate on their conservation.  That is relevant for the UK because many fish species wander around without the slightest regard for national boundaries or Brexit.

(Above – Anchor scars on the seabed at Lyme Bay © Peter Tinsley)

Is Brexit good for the marine environment?

So back to the original question, “is this a good thing for the health of our seas and therefore for the fishing industry?”  If it is to be good for marine conservation and thus for our fishing industry then several things need to be in place.  The CFP has brought order out of chaos, particularly in recent years, and is slowly dragging fisheries back in the direction of sustainability.  Some way to go yet though.  It is extremely important that CFP regulations are translated into domestic legislation post-Brexit.  Regulations that govern: fishing effort (number, size and power of boats); bycatch limits (hopefully catch rather than landing limits); catches (species, size and quantity); and protected areas.  If these aren’t put in place extremely promptly after Brexit and enforcement put into place, such as fisheries protection vessels, then there will likely be a Klondike and our fish populations could be decimated for years to come if not forever.  Many such as bass and cod are teetering on the brink as it is, so we need to use the opportunity of setting up specific, targeted, relevant regulations.  I believe the fishing industry needs to take a long-term view and accept lower, safer, more reliably sustained catches in order that we can build up our populations again rather than fish them to the very limits.  Healthy seas are productive seas.  Brexit provides us with both an opportunity to take our destiny and marine environment into our own hands, but also to damage even what we have if the industry isn’t adequately regulated from day 1.

lobster Julie Hatcher Dorset WTsmaller

(Above – Lobster © Julie Hatcher)

Possible changes

Further, the IFCAs are doing a pretty good job of managing marine resources and the environment.  Their remit could be extended out to 12nm from the current 6nm, as long as they receive sufficient resources to do the job.  Combining this with an extension of the exclusion of large trawlers out from the current 6nm to 12nm could be a useful way forward.

I don’t know the figures, but if we exclude countries from our waters, our fishermen will be excluded from others.  Knowing what an aggressive fishing nation the UK is, that could mean a net loss of income for our industry, but perhaps that will reduce the impact of fishing on other waters and thus improve the environment there.  What will though happen if the big industrial fishing boats of the UK offshore fleet come back to fish in our EEZ?

Looking forward

Brexit could then be good for the marine environment, but only if adequate legislation and good management are introduced here to take over from lost CFP and London Convention regulations.  This is a great opportunity to get our shared marine environment back on a sustainable footing.  Let’s grab that chance and not be side-tracked by political pressure around nationalism and a misunderstanding about what is good for coastal communities.  Sustainability and a healthy marine environment is what we all need.

Kimmeridge Bay by Emma Rance (5)

(Above – Fishing boat in Kimmeridge Bay)

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