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With Brexit talks underway, how can we ensure a sustainable fishing future?

The EU helps direct policy for much (not all) commercial fishing in the UK, so we can develop an ambitious new sustainable fishing regime when we leave. There will be a new Fisheries Bill in the coming months - what are the key opportunities for change?

1. We require clarity about how sustainable fishing will be funded

The EU has, for years, allocated funds to support sustainable fishing, especially switching to sustainable gear and innovation. The Conservative Party have promised that the Coastal Communities Fund will continue until 2022 [1], though this is only one of the strands of current funding and on its own it certainly won’t replace the support that fishers receive at the moment. Government commitments so far therefore fall short of those made by Michael Gove, recently-appointed environment secretary, and other pro-leave MPs that wrote a letter to promise that no communities would lose funding after Brexit. We need clarity immediately that Gove’s promise will be kept to prevent great projects like new fishing gear and on-board technology from stalling.

2. We are very worried about the future of EU marine conservation laws

The Great Repeal Bill White Paper (released March 2017) promised to bring forward a Great Repeal Bill (the 'Great' since dropped in the Queen's Speech!) but without clarity on whether some EU-derived laws could be changed or scrapped on a whim by non-elected government committees, departments or minsters. In short, much less accountable and democratic policy making. This is very worrying: Government have not guaranteed that any EU environmental and human rights laws are safe (though other parties did promise this in the run up to the election [2]). In fact, Michael Gove has celebrated Brexit as an opportunity to scrap ‘absurd’ environmental regulation such as the EU Habitats Directive that protects marine species such as dolphins, porpoises, otters and seals.

3. Binning the Common Fisheries Policy is rash and reckless

During and since the Brexit campaign, the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has been characterised in debates as a blunt, restrictive instrument that strips the UK of sovereignty of its territorial waters - failing to acknowledge the many CFP revisions, called for by the UK, that have seen the dramatic recovery of some shared stocks in the last few years. The CFP includes a ban on discarding live fish overboard, it established that catch limits must be below scientifically-set sustainable levels, ensures co-ordinated management and monitoring, and requires data to be shared internationally. MP’s rash demands to remove the UK from the CFP without clarifying key aspects of a future integrated marine policy is dangerously ill-thought through and risks undermining fantastic progress towards increasing stocks.

4. We have a golden opportunity to support a sustainable fishing industry

A ‘hard’ Brexit may well mean new tariffs on exporting fish to the EU, but the Government could help ease this shock to the industry. The smaller-scale fleets can be supported by allocating fishing rights according to solid social and ecological criteria – allowing boats that are demonstrably sustainable and low-impact to catch more. Government could also make a firm commitment to buy UK-landed, sustainable fish for its own very large food-buying operations, including prisons, hospitals, schools and defence catering.

What needs to happen next:

Brexit is an opportunity for the UK to create the best-managed fisheries in the world, but we cannot let deregulation-hungry ministers, boosted by new law-making powers in the Repeal Bill, dictate this future. Any changes to EU 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, and people and organisations that have expertise and ideas must be fully involved in creating a new Fisheries Bill, embedded within or alongside a new Food and Farming Act. We believe this new policy must include the following:


What a Sustainable Fisheries Bill could look like

Fishing communities have been promised a better deal from Brexit. This is a golden opportunity to create a bold and aspirational Fisheries Bill to ensure fishing livelihoods and the marine environment are better when we leave the EU:   

1. The UK must continue to collaborate with the EU Common Fisheries Policy on the following:

  • All states fishing within scientifically-established catch limits, to ensure all shared stocks are above sustainable levels (Maximum Sustainable Yield) by 2020.
  • Sharing catch data and other scientific information with other states.

2. Protect the following EU legislation after 2019:

  • The discarding ban, as well as provisions for implementation.
  • Ban on deep-sea (over 800m) bottom trawling and assurance of sustainable fishing by UK boats in international waters.
  • Fish packaging labelling regulations.
  • Maintaining or increasing funding for sustainable fishing.

3. A commitment to better support the small-scale inshore UK fleet by:

  • Setting out clear environmental and social criteria for allocating shares of fishing rights (quota). Award more quotas for boats that adopt sustainable fishing gear, avoid sensitive zones, take part in scientific monitoring and achieve certified sustainable status.
  • Get a solid understanding of the stock status for the commercially-fished UK species that aren’t covered by the EU. Ensure these local depleted stocks rebuild – if Brexit doesn’t guarantee a greater share of EU quota, we can guarantee that our own stocks improve.

4. A commitment to supporting the industry by:

  • Supporting fisheries financially through certification (other countries do this, and would help the industry achieve greater prices for catches).
  • Encouraging sustainability with a legally-binding commitment to buying fish from healthy and verifiably sustainable UK stocks for food in the public sector.
  • Encouraging sustainability with a legally-binding requirement for large food buyers – su-permarkets and large foodservice companies – to report transparently on the quantity, source and sustainability status of all the fish and seafood they buy

[1] Set out in the Conservative Party manifesto (see Sustain’s guide for a rundown of the commitments for food and farming from the main parties).  
[2] The labour manifest promised to keep all EU environmental laws – The Green Party promised to strengthen EU laws in a number of areas, and the Liberal Democrats  promised a referendum on the Brexit deal, thus offering a public ‘opt out’ of the final deal.


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Published 22 Jun 2017

Good Trade Campaign: Campaigning for good trade that benefits people and the planet at home and overseas.

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Ruth co-ordinates Sustain's work on the Climate and Nature Emergency and on Sustainable Fishing, working to make food a central part of policies to tackle the climate and nature emergency at a local and national level; also to encourage businesses to adopt a fully sustainable fish policy, and thereby help transform the way the world's oceans are fished.

Ruth Westcott
Campaign Coordinator
Climate change and nature

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