My last article for the Mersea and Wivenhoe Life magazines addressed the national 'Brexit' picture and where we as a country go from here. I thought I would use this month's article to detail some of the more local benefits we will see in our area, specifically to one important local industry; fishing. This industry has been the backbone of coastal Essex for decades. Our local farmers and fishermen are more than just local businesses. They often form an integral part of our communities.
Brexit represents a significant opportunity for the UK fishing industry. Since the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, UK sea fisheries have been subject to the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). It is widely accepted that CFP has been a major failure for the UK’s fishing industry, for example, by imposing blanket measures and a one size fits all approach. Former Foreign Secretary William Hague once described CFP as “an economic, social and environmental disaster” – reducing the industry to a fraction of its former size, destroying the prosperity of coastal communities, and, worst of all, resulting in the collapse of fish stocks, such as cod in the North Sea. Since the 1970’s, there has been a steady decline in the UK fishing industry, with landings of fish, for example, halving during this period, and much of the UK quota being acquired by non-British fishing boats.
The quota system in particular was catastrophic. In 2008 this led the House of Lords European Union Committee to conclude that 88% of EU stocks were over-fished. This compared to a global average of 25%. In 2009, the EU Commission’s Green Paper on reform of the CFP concluded that 30% of the EU’s commercial fish stocks were being fished beyond biological limits.
I have long worked with our local sub-10 metre fleet in Mersea, Wivenhoe and Harwich to support them in the face of the insidious CFP. Brexit offers a the opportunity for the UK to take back control over our fishing grounds, to enable our fishing industry to recover viability, and to address the issue of fish stock sustainability. Our boats will no longer be bound by fishing regulations which cripple their capabilities, which are intended on protecting species of sea creatures not even native to our waters. We will be empowered to take the decisions which are appropriate to the local circumstances, overseen by UK regulatory authorities. We will be able to enforce appropriate and fair measures to increase fishing stocks over the long term.
The UK will also be able to take exclusive responsibility for fishing inside its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends to 200 miles off the coast and contrasts with the current situation in which EU member states share access to fishing grounds 12-200 miles off the coast. The ability to design a fishing policy tailored for the UK specifically, and to take responsibility for fishing over a much wider area will be important for maximising the opportunities for both the UK fishing industry as a whole, and our local fishing industry in Essex.
It will take time for policy to evolve, and to avoid being unreasonable to other EU countries who’s industry will be losing the right to fish in UK waters, but we can embark on this from day one after Brexit, to recover the livelihoods of our fishing communities, the wider prosperity of towns like Wivenhoe, Brightlingsea and Mersea; and to restore the marine ecology of our coasts and seas.