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In his first trip to Scotland, the country that lands 61% of the UK’s total fishing catch by weight, the new PM promised flushed with rhetoric of “taking back control” of our national waters – that UK fishing was off the table in any future UK-EU trade deals. 

Yet, the new Government has of yet not made any substantive policy announcements as to what post-Brexit fisheries policy will be. In contrast, the former Government published a Fisheries White Paper to set out their vision for “sustainable fisheries for future generations”, included the goal of making sure all fish stocks will be recovered to healthy levels in the 25 Year Environment Plan, and initiated a Fisheries Bill that was until very recently making its way through Parliament. 

The new PM therefore needs to establish the current Government’s thinking on fisheries as the UK exits the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the EU’s framework for managing common EU fishing waters and stocks. Indeed, this is especially pertinent with the recent proroguing of parliament halting the progress of the Fisheries Bill. 

Under the CFP, fishing quotas, known as ‘total allowable catches’ (TACs), are set annually at an EU level. They are required to comply with the CFP’s principal of fishing only at levels where fish stocks can sustainably recover by 2020 – a level known as the maximum sustainable yield (MSY). Notably, for TACs set between 2001 and 2017, it has been shown that 70% of TACs set by the EU were unsustainable as they were set above scientific advice for the MSY level. 

Once quotas are decided on an EU level, they are allocated to member states based on ‘relative stability’, which takes into account several factors such as historical catch data and the need of coastal communities dependent on fisheries. 

In the UK, the responsibility over TACs amongst national fishing fleets is devolved. Scotland receives the majority of UK TACs, landing over half the fish caught by UK vessels by both total weight and total value.

One of the most notorious issues that the CFP encounters is that of ‘bycatch’ – the landing of species by a boat that are protected in some way. Vessels will often throw away fish they do not have a quota for to be able to continue fishing. The CFP attempts to regulate this through a ‘landing obligation’, that from the start of this year requires boats to land all fish caught that have a quota placed on them. 

Whilst outlawing the wasteful practice of discarding bycatch, the ‘landing obligation’ is a blunt instrument because vessels can use up their fishing quotas through unintentionally landing certain fish, and be prevented from further fishing. This is a particular problem for mixed fisheries that land multiple species of fish, meaning quotas can quickly be used up.  

Brexit is not all doom and gloom: it provides an opportunity to change the problems with the CFP.

Specifically in relation to the issues generated by fishing quotas, the new PM could capitalise on Brexit through developing a market-based scheme for managing quotas, as is done in Iceland.

Market-based schemes are, with the right policies and incentives, often an efficient way of achieving environmental aims. 

Indeed, the former Government was pursuing a similar scheme through its Agriculture Bill, which intended to replace the Common Agricultural Policy’s (CAP) system of distributing rural payments based on the amount of land owned with a scheme that linked subsidies to the amount of ecosystem services provided – as recommended by past Bright Blue research.

Allowing fishing quotas to be traded amongst fishing vessels would have two major benefits when compared to the CFP. 

First, it would provide vessels with more flexibility. Creating a supply of quotas, that can be bought or sold, allows vessels to continue fishing through buying more of a quota even if bycatch is caught accidentally. As quotas become scarcer, their price would reflect this. This gets around the stubborn effect of the landing obligation that closes fisheries if a quota is exceeded.  

Second, certain policies can be built into a market-based scheme to encourage more sustainable fishing, such as incentives to use more selective fishing gear

Importantly, other issues would still need addressing, such as questions over the extent of and access to UK waters, and how to distribute existing quotas. Yet a market-based scheme allows more flexibility to manage quotas with the fact it is difficult to completely avoid bycatching certain species of fish. 

In developing post-Brexit fisheries policy, the new PM would do well to reform the cumbersome aspects of the CFP. A market-based scheme for quotas is a sensible place to start.

William Nicolle is a Researcher at Bright Blue. Image licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.