UK set to ditch overfishing safeguards, despite ‘green Brexit’ promise

Decision not to adopt EU legal duty to end overfishing from 2020 came after fishing interests asked for target to be watered down

Trawlermen fishing in the North Sea near Shetland, Scotland, December 2018. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

The government is on course to ditch a landmark EU legal commitment to end overfishing by 2020, despite the prime minister’s promise not to reduce UK environmental standards after Brexit.

The move represents a dilution of ambitions outlined in the government’s own fisheries white paper, according to MPs and conservationists. It comes after some in the fishing industry called on ministers not to adopt the 2020 target into post-Brexit law.

Under the common fisheries policy, EU ministers will be legally bound – from next year on – to set fishing quotas within a “maximum sustainable yield” (MSY). This is the greatest amount of fish that scientists say can be caught without depleting the stock long-term.

The deadline was agreed by EU member states, including the UK, in a bid to finally end the annual spectacle of fisheries ministers caving to industry pressure to set allowable catches at levels their scientific advisors say are unsustainable.

Prime minister Theresa May has promised to incorporate all EU environmental regulations into domestic law, and to ensure “Brexit will not mean a lowering of environmental standards”.

But the government bill intended to replace the EU’s common fisheries policy includes no legal duty to limit catches in line with the scientific advice – and ministers have so far rebuffed attempts to introduce one.

‘Step backwards’

Instead, the fisheries bill – which will return to the House of Commons soon – includes only an “objective” to ensure fishing within MSY. Environmentalists warn this will leave ministers vulnerable to continued industry pressure to overfish.

“It would really be a step backwards and a watering down of existing commitments,” said Sam Stone, head of fisheries and aquaculture at the Marine Conservation Society.

“The government has said several times that there should be a green Brexit, and said they want to improve environmental standards. Removing this commitment would certainly not achieve that.”

Fishermen themselves want an industry to pass on to their children

Liberal Democrat MP Alastair Carmichael, whose Shetland and Orkney constituency plays a major role in UK fishing, told Unearthed that the costs of getting the fisheries bill wrong “would be huge”.

“Fishing unsustainably is in no one’s interests, especially not the interests of the fishing industry and the communities that depend on it,” he said.  

“Maximum Sustainable Yield is a piece of jargon that really means common sense. Fishing is an industry that goes down generations and fishermen themselves want an industry to pass on to their children.”

Mr Carmichael sat on the committee of MPs that examined the bill, and tabled an amendment – blocked by Conservative MPs – that would have introduced a duty to set catches in line with scientific advice. “The absence of MSY from the bill is disappointing,” he said.

“The white paper that came ahead of the bill was much stronger. The bill looks to me like a botched job coming from a government department that, seized by the challenges of Brexit, has lost sight of what is important.”

But he added: “This Government does not have a majority in the Commons and is in an even weaker position in the Lords. I believe we shall see a lot more changes to the bill and am determined to keep fighting on this issue.”

Fisheries minister George Eustice has offered various arguments for not including a binding MSY duty in the bill.

He has argued it would rob the UK of “flexibility” needed to manage fish stocks shared with countries like Norway, which does not always use scientific advice based on MSY; that it is impossible to set all catch limits at MSY in “mixed fisheries”, where more than one species is caught in the same area; and that “it makes no sense” to include a 2020 deadline in a bill that probably will not take effect before 2021.

Until the 2020 deadline was agreed "we consistently set limits over and above those recommended by scientists", conservationists say Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

He has also said the fisheries bill will require the UK’s four nations to produce a joint statement explaining how they will meet the bill’s objectives. He argues this statement would be the right place to make a commitment to set catches in line with scientific advice.

A Department for Food Agriculture and Rural Affairs spokesman told Unearthed: “The UK’s four Fisheries Administrations will set out in a statutory joint statement how they will work together to achieve the Bill’s sustainability objectives, including maximum sustainable yield (MSY).

“The UK Government remains committed to continuing to work under the principle of MSY and restore stocks to healthy conditions as quickly as possible.”

It is easy to claim that we are going to be an independent coastal state, but that does not deliver sustainable fisheries

However, Mr Carmichael says there is “no guarantee” that MSY will be “enshrined” in the joint fisheries statement.

He told the bill committee: “The fisheries statement will be subject to a negotiation between four administrations.

“There might be any number of reasons why maximum sustainable yield might fall from that particular safety net.”

The MCS’s Sam Stone told Unearthed that in most cases it would be the secretary of state determining “fishing opportunities” – the amount of fish that can be caught – and there was “no requirement anywhere” in the bill for the secretary of state to “ensure that catches are only set up  to the maximum sustainable yield”.

Conservationists say uncertainty about when the bill will take effect does not prevent the inclusion of a legal duty to set catch limits according to scientific advice. They argue this duty could be combined with an allowance for flexibility in negotiations with “third countries” like Norway.

Watered down

The July 2018 white paper in which ministers set out their principles for post-Brexit fishing regulation boasts about the UK’s role in securing a legally binding commitment to MSY in the most recent reforms of the EU’s fishing policy.

It promises that after Brexit the government “will continue to work with our European partners to regulate fishing and to set harvest rates that restore and maintain fish stocks at least to levels that can produce MSY”.

It adds: “This will mean agreeing catch rates that are based on the best available science. In mixed fisheries, that will include taking account of the interactions between harvested species and with the wider ecosystem.”

Defra consulted on this paper last summer. According to the department’s summary of the results, most respondents backed the objective to fish at or below levels that support MSY. “However,” it added, “some respondents from the fishing industry expressed concern that the [EU] CFP target to achieve MSY for all stocks by 2020 was unachievable.

“Industry responses in particular suggested that a more general commitment to work towards achieving MSY in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would be preferable.”

Unearthed asked Defra if the decision not to include a binding MSY duty had been taken in response to fishing industry concerns but it did not directly respond.

In 2018 around 44% of EU fishing limits were set higher than the scientific advice Photo: David Sandison / Greenpeace

‘Discredited system’

A legal duty to set quotas within MSY is backed by NGOs including the Marine Conservation Society, the Pew Trusts, Greener UK, Greenpeace – which funds Unearthed, and the Angling Trust.

Helen McLachlan, of the World Wildlife Fund and Greener UK, told MPs the 2014 common fisheries policy reforms that set a binding deadline for MSY had marked a turning point. “Prior to that, we consistently set limits over and above that recommended by scientists. Since that binding commitment was brought in, we have started to see those trends going the right way: biomass increasing, fishing mortality decreasing…”

According to the Pew Trusts, in 2018 about 44% of EU fishing limits were set higher than the scientific advice, but for stocks with an MSY recommendation around 75% were set in line with that advice.

Giving evidence on the bill, Angling Trust campaigns coordinator Martin Salter – a former Labour MP – told Mr Eustice that if “I were in your shoes, I would want a binding duty.

“I would want to make it crystal clear that we are going to end the discredited system that has operated under the common fisheries policy and replace it with a legally backed duty to fish at sustainable levels, just as we have legally backed targets for climate change and emissions.”

He added: “[It] is easy to claim that we are going to be an independent coastal state, but that does not deliver sustainable fisheries.

“Senegal is an independent coastal state, and its fisheries have been wiped out by super-trawlers, which are mainly European and have used their economic power to destroy the livelihoods of artisanal fishermen in independent coastal states.

“You will deliver sustainable fisheries management by having world-leading sustainable fisheries policy.”