Michael Gove has purportedly shown us what ‘taking back control’ really means, by drawing a 12-mile line around the UK for exclusive fishing access for British vessels. Now he has his sights set on an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 miles (or the median line). On a map, this looks like a win for British influence in the world, reminiscent of times past and conquering new territory. But the nature of influence and the transboundary movements of those pesky fish mean that this drive to etch battle lines has the notion of control completely backwards. Real control requires co-operation and shared management. Unfortunately, the idea of control offered by the most buccaneering Brexiteers does not seem to involve much co-operation at all.
Lessons in how to improve management of a shared resource
Setting aside the issue that ‘taking back’ exclusive access to UK ascension in 1972 would actually mean smaller waters, there’s an important question about the nature of ‘control’. Does sovereignty over fisheries management really come from a maritime border? Or does losing influence over what happens on the other side of that line represent a much bigger loss?
Take the example of sea bass. The dramatic surge in its popularity on menus is matched by the dramatic decline of the stock size. A formerly insignificant fish, it was left out of the EU’s system of fishing quotas, and fishing ministers from France, the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium have been unable to agree on conservation measures. In the end, the UK government made a formal request to the Commission to take emergency measures to protect the species. These measures, which applied across all member states, set limits on landing size, fishing seasons, recreational catches and catches by gear type. Finally, the decline is changing course and there may yet be a future for this prized fish.
This progress simply would not have happened had the UK not been able to influence the EU to act. Even if we were to have the perfect management of sea bass swimming within our EEZ, the fact remains that the majority of the fish stock and catches are taking place on the EU’s side of that line. Influence over management goes much further than 200 miles.
Or take the highly publicised issue of discards. Back in 2010, the FishFight campaign, led by British celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, attracted 870,000 signatures on a petition to end the practice of discarding over-quota and unwanted catches in the EU. Despite opposition from some EU member states, significant changes were made with the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy in 2013. This new legislation requires all fish to be landed and counted against quota limits. As the Common Fisheries Policy is EU legislation, this ban applies across all countries.
Erecting a new border won’t stop bad practices on the other side
The UK has, by no means, been a perfect actor in this space (eg fighting against quota reductions for North Sea cod while the stock was in jeopardy), but a moral comparison here is not actually relevant. If, as it is widely argued in the UK, the French and the Spanish are the bad actors in EU fisheries, the more important issue is whether these countries will continue unsustainable fishing practices post-Brexit.
On this question over how other nations will respond, we have heard very little from Michael Gove, but it is of critical importance. Fish will continue to swim through the Northeast Atlantic at their liberty (except the ones caught) and our government is setting itself up to lose influence over what happens on the other side of its battle line. Shielding your vision to unsustainable practices beyond your own waters does not change the fact that they are happening, nor does it change the direct effects they have on shared fish stocks. We have already learned the lesson of non-cooperation through poor fisheries management between the Falklands and Argentina and it is not a lesson worth relearning.
Moving from machismo to mutual recognition
The significance of this confusion over sovereignty goes beyond fish stocks. Whilst perhaps most obvious for shared resources, the most vexing issues we face as a country are inherently transboundary: pollution, climate change, capital flows, security, trade and regulation. This is where those offering a promise to “take back control” make a grave misunderstanding. As The Economist has argued, if we want to have any influence over the forces shaping our society, then “real sovereignty is relative”.
Establishing a border, enhancing monitoring and arming boats (at significant cost, especially given the industry size) has the look and feel of sovereignty, but it is incredibly dangerous to pursue policy based on appearance alone. If the concern is really about sustainable fish stocks and the communities that rely on them, Michael Gove must drop the tough talk and taglines and instead seek a new kind of shared management of an inevitably shared resource.
Greener UK has created a Brexit Risk Tracker, a tool for monitoring the UK government’s choices around safeguarding environmental protections, such as fisheries, throughout the Brexit process.
This blog was originally published by Green Alliance here.