Brexit: Sea of Opportunities?

05 April 2017 - The two-year period of negotiations before the United Kingdom officially leaves the European Union has begun. It will seemingly bring an end to many years’ fraught relations regarding the sea fisheries surrounding Britain. To those who claim local control is best it will be billed as a great commonsense victory for fishing communities, the marine environment and the national economy. The reality is that it is very hard right now to imagine just how events will unfold.

“Brussels”, and its perceived meddling in local affairs, has long been an easy target for almost any complaint relating to areas falling within its competence, and most fishing organisations and many fishers have expressed delight in the severing of ties. Mike Park of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, reacting to a recent Lord’s Parliamentary report on Brexit and fisheries commented, "I believe that retaining control over access trumps everything”.[1] It is a sentiment central not only to British fishers, but was a theme expressed time and again by the general public as a rationale for voting to leave the EU. But will the triggering of Article 50 and the full break in two-years’ time lead to opportunities for improvement?

There is a common assertion that in Brexit will not lead to total control of British Fisheries. As with so many areas pertinent to Brexit, fisheries are not immune from the global, inter-related nature of today’s world. Robin Churchill, Professor Emeritus of International Law at the University of Dundee, explained that under Article 63(1) of UNCLOS “there is an obligation on states in whose waters the same stocks occur, what are generally called in shorthand ‘shared stocks’, to co-operate in the management of them.” He noted: “The details of how that is to be done are very vague, but there is a general obligation to co-operate.”[2]

Moreover, modern economics empower markets; the reign of commodity has been over for many years. The vast majority of British-caught seafood is exported, while most seafood consumed in the UK is imported; clearly market forces will be at play - as will probably be the case across industries - during negotiations. No one today benefits from trade wars.

Into the mix we must also add that First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has made it quite clear that she intends to push for a second Scottish independence referendum. She feels, as do many Scots, that as Scotland solidly voted for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union, the fundamental deal between Scotland and Westminster has changed. British Prime Minister Theresa May disagrees, saying that the timing of a referendum now in the midst of negotiations with Europe would weaken Britain’s bargaining position. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has also weighed in with a “third way” which would see more delegation of powers to Scotland - including some form of control over Scottish fisheries. Details to come.

It is in a word, chaotic. We are in a period of extended negotiations where truth is not advertised and goals are perhaps not clear. Where we end up is at this moment, anyone’s guess.

[1] UK fishing industry warned of major post brexit compromises
[2] UK Parliament (PDF)