The automatic right of EU vessels to fish in British waters, in accordance with the EU’s common fisheries policy, is to be ended under the fisheries bill introduced to parliament today.
There will also be measures to ensure sustainable fishing and “climate-smart” fishing in UK waters, added since the last version of the bill which had to be abandoned. This is in line with the government’s environmental commitments, and provisions to provide financial support to fishing communities.
But campaigners said the bill fell short of ministers’ pledges to protect dwindling fish stocks and contained too many loopholes.
Access to UK waters is likely to be a key bargaining chip in negotiations with the EU over a new trade deal. Several European politicians and officials have made it clear they think British access to the EU’s lucrative financial services markets ought to be dependent on keeping the access European fishing fleets currently enjoy to UK waters.
The UK’s fishing fleet employs about 11,000 people and is worth less than £1bn to the national economy. However, fishing became a major issue during the referendum campaign. Owing to concessions given by successive British governments since the 1970s, EU member states take a much greater proportion of the fish in UK waters than the national fleet.
Theresa Villiers, environment secretary, said: “This new bill takes back control of our waters, enabling the UK to create a sustainable, profitable fishing industry for our coastal communities, while securing the long term health of British fisheries. Leaving the EU’s failed common fisheries policies is one of the most important benefits of Brexit. It means we can create a fairer system.”
Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said: “New provisions in the bill will mean the UK will take into account the impacts of climate change on its fisheries, with a new objective to move us towards ‘climate-smart’ fishing.”
However, campaigners are concerned that ministers could seek to water down the government’s commitments to sustainable fishing. They called for more clarity on whether greater quotas would be allocated to smaller boats, which are more sustainable than huge trawlers, and called for the government to introduce cameras on vessels to ensure that sustainable practices were being followed, such as monitoring whether vessels were discarding fish.
Patrick Killoran, at Greener UK, said: “This [bill] will only work if the government closes loopholes in the last bill that allowed ministers to exceed fishing limits. The focus we can expect on rights and access over the next few months must be matched by more detail on how the government will actually ensure sustainable fishing.”
Sarah Denman, UK environment lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “The bill falls far short of the government’s election manifesto promise to secure sustainable fisheries. A clear requirement to set sustainable fishing limits is vital to protect fish populations and work towards ocean recovery, but this is absent from the bill [and] key conservation measures to safeguard overfished species will be removed once the UK leaves the EU, and will not be replaced in the bill.”
She said the negotiations with the EU would be “an important test to see if the government is serious about managing our fisheries sustainably for the benefit of the marine environment and coastal communities”.