Across the country, we have all seen what an enormous mistake it was to cede control of our fishing policy to the European Union over the past 40 years. Indeed, nowhere is the damage caused by our membership more evident than in the decline of this particular industry.
All those who work tirelessly and risk their lives to bring back the fresh fish we enjoy eating should be remembered and respected for their endurance and sacrifice. Our fishing communities have seen their industry diminished, while billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have been spent by the EU investing in other fleets, including Spain’s.
Indeed, we have seen the EU allocate more quotas for certain species in our waters to other EU countries than to us. As the Defra secretary told parliament last week, 84 per cent of the rights to fish for cod in the English channel has gone to the French, leaving just nine per cent for British fishermen. That is just plain wrong. In fact, about two-thirds of the fish caught in UK waters are caught by fleets from other EU member states. And in the past, controls have been placed on British fishermen to protect the environment, but those same rules have been completely ignored by the fishing fleets of other countries – famously so.
So, to all those, especially Labour members of parliament, who think that the EU is some sort of guarantor of environmental standards – and that we are incapable of protecting our own environment – they need look no further than the devastation created by the common fisheries policy to see that it is the EU that cannot be trusted with our environment.
That applies specifically to discards; the CFP has caused large quantities of healthy fish to be thrown back dead into the sea, and it also applies to the French vessels that used to undertake bass pair trawling in our seas, which damaged the seabed and ensnared in their nets all marine life, including dolphins. Of course, there has been reform, but the discard ban is flawed, and the only way in which we can support fishing communities and manage the marine environment in a sustainable way is to return decision-making to our own parliament.
That is they the Fisheries Bill is so important. It is an enabling bill, but it leaves so much open to future decisions. It empowers ministers to take control of our own waters, but some of that will only happen in due course. The problem is that we may be vulnerable to finding ourselves unable to take back the full control that we – and our fishing communities – expect. There are legitimate fears that come the negotiations on the future relationship, our fisheries will once again be traded away.
This is about clarity. Because if we are truly leaving the European Union, we should control access to our waters, or else we will simply be leaving the CFP in name only, and that would be a travesty. Under no circumstance should these rights be negotiated away, but there is certainly an ambivalence – a convenient ambivalence – in the language that has been used in negotiations.
For example, page four of the outline of the political declaration on the future relationship states: “Within the context of the overall economic partnership, establishment of a new fisheries agreement on, inter alia, access to waters and quota shares, to be in place in time to be used for determining fishing opportunities for the first year after the transition period.”
Given the history of fisheries and the critical impact on our fishing communities and environment, the government must not lock our fisheries into a trade deal that would leave us in a place that is similar to our current position in the CFP. We must show leadership, and make it crystal clear that we will take back control over our own seas. In future negotiations that we have as a coastal state, we should start from the simple and logical basis that the fish in our seas are ours, rather than starting at a point based on current EU agreements and the CFP.
There are many other concerns about the way in which we are supposedly leaving the EU, as I have raised before, but the fundamental objective must be that we take back control. Our government must fight for our fishing industry and communities across the country. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do this, so let’s get it right.