Generation Brexit

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Fish, as a general rule, are uninterested in Brexit. They will not observe the borders it might create, nor the threat it poses to their existence. Brexit, on the other hand, is very interested in the fish. They are a cause célèbre for the Brexiteers: the ultimate case of Europe stealing money from the pockets and food from the plates of British workers. It is understandable then, that for many, Britain exiting the EU must necessarily mean the end of the British part in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).


I posit that this is a mistake, and that it must be the continued British policy to cooperate over fisheries, ideally through the CFP. That this proposition is likely to be controversial is due in part to two misconceptions of the role of CFP in the history of British fishing. Firstly, it is wrong to attribute the decline of the British fishing fleet entirely to CFP. Certainly, unbalanced quotas have seen an unprecedented decline of British vessels, particularly along the south coast. But it is not the ‘sole’ cause, and the national Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) which are offered as an alternative to CFP are partly to blame. When they emerged in Norway and Iceland, where Britain fished, it had a disastrous effect. Coupled with a CFP which favours those who did not fish so far north, the fish available to British vessels is considerably decreased. But, and this is the second misconception, it is not all bad. While the decline of British vessels has had an unmistakable influence on communities, the positive influence of new European vessels should not be understated.


Britain’s continued membership of the CFP is the simplest guarantee that it continues to have a part in a number of other fishing agreements which affect ‘British’ waters: the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, various Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and Fish Stocks Agreement. Britain’s influence in all of these, and others, is currently predicated on its membership of CFP. If Britain withdraws, it is likely that influence will wane.


It is not only to maintain influence that Britain must remain part of this international community however, but because, as noted, fish do not observe borders. The problems of sustainable fishing can only be countered by international co-operation, much as air pollution and climate change require a global response. Environmental sustainability is hindered, not helped, by ‘taking back control’. Furthermore, it quite likely that this government, or one that succeeds it, might prioritise public opinion over environmental reality. In an effort to retain the support of Brexiteers obsessed with fishing, lax attitudes to overfishing currently prevented by the CFP might be adopted.


In short, fish and water are and will always remain a common resource, unperturbed by national boundaries, so the management of fisheries must then be similarly anti-national. The independence that some in Britain seek is a dangerous illusion in light of this. Fish might not be interested in Brexit, but we should all be interested in the fish.

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