After Brexit, offshore fisheries conditions for the UK will change. What preparations are being made for this transition? Given its particular interests in this sphere, what is Scotland doing? John MacDonald casts an eye across the issues. 


In 2012, The Times reported clashes between British scallop fishermen and French fishing vessels in the English Channel. French fishermen claimed that British vessels were fishing in an exclusion zone in waters off Le Havre. The crews of eight British boats claimed they were fishing legally in international waters, about 24 kilometres from the French port, when they were surrounded by up to 50 French vessels whose crews fired flares at them and threw rocks.

In the aftermath of the incident, British fishermen requested Royal Navy protection from their French counterparts. It is interesting to note that The Times reported these clashes as a ‘scallop war’, and the article it ran on the story featured in the ‘Defence’ section of the newspaper.

Fisheries as a defence issue? For those of a certain age, unfamiliar with the Cod Wars, this may be a strange concept. However, in the aftermath of Brexit, it may be less so. Fisheries could well become more confrontational after March 2019. Everything depends on what the current UK-EU negotiations conclude.


HMS Scylla (right) and the Icelandic Coast Guard Vessel Odinn collide during the Second Cod War (1972-73). Image: Rama/INewton-licence [CC BY-SA 2.5]

Current EU policy – which the UK is bound to – revolves around the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which operates on a principle of ‘equal access’. What this means is that, with some limited exemptions, EU-registered fishing vessels have fishing rights between 12 and 200 nautical miles of EU member nations’ coastlines.

The EU will work hard during Brexit negotiations to ensure that EU vessels can continue accessing UK waters, which reportedly provide around one-third of the EU’s overall catch. But this prospect is rejected stridently by UK fisheries organisations who say that ‘equal access’ to UK waters works hugely in favour of other EU nations. The Scottish Fisheries Federation says that the domestic fishing industry has been decimated by EU membership.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (and arch-Brexiteer) Michael Gove has made clear that the UK will leave the CFP in March 2019, and not at the end of any transition period. “The moment we leave”, Gove contends, “we become an independent coastal state…we will have continuing good relations with our European partners, but we will decide access and quotas.”

Last summer, Gove announced that the UK would leave the 1964 London Fisheries Convention, which allows vessels from France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands to fish within six and 12 nautical miles of the UK’s coastline.


Two things seem certain: a UK ‘exclusion zone’ will need to be monitored and defended after Brexit; and this will require a more expansive, muscular approach if foreign vessels continue to try to fish UK waters in contravention of the final Brexit agreement.

However, some EU member fishing vessel operators have said they will challenge any attempt to bar them from UK waters after Brexit. French fishermen have reportedly threatened a blockade of Channel ports if they are blocked or restricted from UK waters. Denmark has built a legal case to contest UK efforts to ‘take back control’ of its fisheries, citing fishermen’s rights which go back hundreds of years.

However this process pans out, two things seem certain: a UK ‘exclusion zone’ will need to be monitored and defended after Brexit; and this will require a more expansive, muscular approach if foreign vessels continue to try to fish UK waters in contravention of the final Brexit agreement. It begs the question of what preparation is being made to meet the challenges to come. And given that responsibility for fisheries protection does not rest entirely in London, how well is Scotland preparing?

BOLSTERING THE UK FLEET

The UK’s Fishery Protection Squadron (FPS) is run by the Royal Navy. According to its website, the mission of the FPS ‘is to patrol the fishery limits of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’ (note that Scotland isn’t mentioned – more on this later). Headquartered in Portsmouth, the FPS comprises three River Class offshore patrol vessels which operate largely in UK waters on fishery protection and coastguard support duties, and one offshore patrol vessel – HMS Clyde – which is typically deployed in the South Atlantic. These naval vessels are armed.

This fleet is set to increase. The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has said publicly that ‘Leaving the EU means we will take back control of our waters’, and that it is ‘reviewing all aspects of fishery management, including satellites, patrol vessels and aerial surveillance’. In keeping with this review, DEFRA will soon be allocated the first of four Royal Navy fishery protection vessels whose task, according to The Timesis to ‘keep the Europeans away’. The first of these vessels – HMS Forth – arrived at its homeport in Portsmouth last week, and is expected to be deployed on operations later this year.


DEFRA will soon be allocated the first of four Royal Navy fishery protection vessels whose task, according to The Times, is to ‘keep the Europeans away’.

The offensive capability of the new vessels has also been discussed enthusiastically in the UK press. HMS Forth, it has been widely reported, has a 30mm automatic cannon, two miniguns, four machine guns, and is supported by a Merlin-sized helicopter.

Aside from HMS Forth, four other ships are being built, at a reported cost of £350 million. George Eustice, a minister at DEFRA, has said that the enforcement of sovereignty over British waters will be ready to go on 29 March 2019. He has also stated that discussions are afoot to examine whether the £350 million investment already committed will be adequate to cope with fisheries conditions after this date.

At a time of political ambiguity, one picture seems clear: the UK government is preparing for a new fisheries landscape after Brexit. And the rationales for doing so seem perfectly sensible. It begs the question: what is Scotland doing on this front?

THE SCOTTISH PICTURE

Scotland has a pronounced interest in what happens to fisheries after Brexit. Scottish waters (the Scottish part of the UK exclusive economic zone) comprise 60 percent of the total UK sea area. An average of £592.3 million of fish and shellfish are landed from them each year. Of this catch, the Scottish fishing fleet lands 56 percent (by value); the rest of the UK fleet lands just 8 percent. The (non-UK) EU fleet lands 35 percent – this last figure demonstrates the considerable value of Scotland’s waters to the EU.

It is worth noting that Scotland is a distinct case as far as UK-wide fisheries protection is concerned. Whilst the Royal Navy Fishery Protection Squadron’s mission is ‘to patrol the fishery limits of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’, responsibility for protecting Scottish waters was given to the Fishery Board for Scotland in 1882.


An average of £592.3 million of fish and shellfish are landed from them each year. Of this catch, the Scottish fishing fleet lands 56 percent (by value); the rest of the UK fleet lands just 8 percent. The (non-UK) EU fleet lands 35 percent.

Today, Scotland’s fisheries protection is overseen by Marine Scotland, the Scottish government agency responsible for the integrated management of Scotland’s seas. The agency is responsible for ‘controlling the activities of all fishing vessels operating within the Scottish zone, as defined by the Fishery Limits Act 1976 and the Scotland Act 1998. This covers the North Sea and West of Scotland out to 200 nautical miles.’

Scotland’s fisheries protection capability is made up of two offshore protection vessels and one inshore vessel. In contrast to the UK vessels, the Scottish vessels are unarmed. Scotland also has two fixed-wing surveillance aircraft and a satellite monitoring system to give oversight of the extensive area of the Scottish zone, out to 200 nautical miles and beyond.


The Scottish fisheries protection vessel FPV Minna. Image: Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency [CC BY 2.5]

Whilst fisheries protection capacity is currently being enhanced at the UK level with an eye on Brexit, in Scotland – whose seas are the richest prize of all within the UK context – things appear to be static.

In response to an information request made by CABLE, a Scottish government spokesperson confirmed that there are currently no declared plans to enhance what is in place for Scotland. Nor is there any plan to give Scottish fisheries protection vessels a more muscular enforcement capability in order to prepare for what might be a more challenging environment after Brexit. According to the spokesperson: “Scotland’s surveillance and enforcement assets are operated on a non-military basis. There are no current plans to change this, or to fit arms to any assets.”

CABLE’s contact added further that “there are no current plans for the Scottish zone to be patrolled by the Royal Navy for fisheries protection purposes.”


Whilst fisheries protection capacity is currently being enhanced at the UK level with an eye on Brexit, in Scotland – whose seas are the richest prize of all within the UK context – things appear to be static.

Fisheries and maritime experts will have their own opinions on whether Scotland needs extra provision to maintain effective monitoring and enforcement duties after Brexit. But it seems apparent that the preparations being enacted down south are absent in Scotland whose seas (because of size and productivity) might be regarded as being in greatest need of preparation.

Yet this situation shouldn’t necessarily be decried as one of unpreparedness on the part of the government in Edinburgh. According to the Scottish government source who spoke to CABLE:

“Until the UK government clarifies its plans on what sort of Brexit it is seeking, it is very difficult for us to plan appropriately. In the meantime, we will continue to prepare plans for a range of possible outcomes, so we are in the best possible position once we receive clarity from the UK government.”

This statement sheds further light on the confusion caused by the UK government’s stumbling, incoherent Brexit negotiations. On the issue of fisheries, as with so much else, the Scottish government finds itself in limbo as it seeks to plan ahead.

And yet, it must be said, the current climate of uncertainty isn’t stopping the UK government from moving forward with its plans. It appears to be working to the one imperative which is crystal clear: fisheries protection will need to be enhanced after 29 March 2019.

Will Scotland’s waters be adequately covered and defended after Brexit? Time will tell – but the clock is ticking.


John MacDonald is Editor of CABLE. Find him on Twitter at: @1johnmacdonald 


Feature image: The patrol vessel HMS Forth en route from Glasgow last month to her homeport in Portsmouth. Image: Royal Navy.