Friday, 17 February 2017

Don't expect to "take back control" of fishing

The Guardian gleefully reports this week that UK fishermen may not win waters back after Brexit. The wider media are framing it as though fisherman are to be sold down the river once more.

Much of this comes down to a question of how you break up a forty year old system, how we negotiate quotas and the legacy contracts in the current framework. It's not a case of reverting things to how they were before since much has changed in policy, public attitudes and technology.

Firstly, to look at this objectively, you have to sweep away the misty eyed narrative of "UK fishermen" being the plucky underdogs. If you're operating even a medium sized boat you're dealing with assets in the millions and you'll be dealing with quite wealthy skippers using Filipino labour, paying as little as they can get away with.

Worse still, fishing is still one of the most corrupt industries going. European boats are well known for flouting visa rules to employ Filipinos. Half the problem is that you just can't get Europeans to do the job. It's back breaking work, extremely dangerous, and the pay is not what it was given the availability of cheap labour. Fishing is now a fully globalised industry.

The way things work these days is that some boats may be UK registered but rather than landing a catch, they will transfer it to a fish processing vessel, where the fish will be packed in ice, flown to the far east for further processing and then flown back into Heathrow. Your "locally caught" fish might well have been halfway around the world before it ends up on your plate.

All of this has to be regulated and enforced, being mindful that consumers are now a lot more discerning and want to know that fish come from sustainable sources. Ocean floor dredging is a massively destructive form of fishing and it destroys breeding grounds. It needs to be heavily policed. What this means is that for an industry worth less than a billion to the UK economy, it has to have a disproportionate, resource intensive enforcement regime, where there is complete sense in splitting the bill.

The short version is that anyone who thought that UK boats would be awarded all the quotas for UK waters was deluding themselves. We can "take back control" but what that means is we take on all the costs as well.

Chances are that the government will do the math and negotiate continued associate membership of the Common Fisheries Policy in exchange for certain market access. There will likely be a sense of resignation that designing a new system comes at considerable cost for very little financial gain. The media will call it the great Brexit betrayal, and I rather expect negotiators will give on fishing just to save more lucrative sectors.

More to the point, though the CFP system is not a perfect system, it is at least a system. No government is in a hurry to unpick a system for its own sake. Furthermore, a lot of the governance is now superseded by international conventions whereby "taking back control" does not necessarily give us the legislative freedoms we might expect.

I think we can expect only token moves for the time being. I rather expect what was done in the 1990's is irreversible and never again will we see a large British fleet crewed by British fishermen. Give it fifty years and I will be surprised if fishing boats are crewed at all. Presently the system practically runs on slave labour involving a lot of trafficking and crew abandonment, and as we step up global measures to crack down on it we will see moves toward removing the human element. That much won't be a bad thing. There is something especially heartbreaking about loss of life at sea.

This is will likely end up as a huge political row as expectations have not been managed well. A lot of the old boys in the industry are expecting a reversion to times when British boats fished British waters. That model, corrupt as it was, was obsolete many years ago and though it was a tragedy to put an end to centuries of tradition, the deed is now done and there is no putting the genie back in the bottle.

Whatever happens, much of the system will need to stay as it is. These days, with an increased focus on combating food fraud and illegal catches, employing the very latest DNA testing, criminal activity in the industry is a lot harder to get away with. It is still rife though and lawbreaking is commonplace. Fishermen are notoriously relaxed about the law and there is only so much authorities can do. It depends on a web of international cooperation and without a good deal of political will and considerable competence there is not a lot of point taking a wrecking ball to the system.

We will likely hear a lot of special pleading from the industry but no-one should be under any illusions. There is a lot more to "taking back control" than is immediately apparent, and sadly, it is not the political priority it once was. We can expect the government to prioritise white collar jobs and those in the automotive sector. When it comes to fishing, we might very well discover that without a Brexit plan, what is done is done.

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