Seafood can’t be sacrificial lamb in Brexit negotiations

Published on
July 5, 2017

Confirmation that creating a new fisheries bill will be one of the U.K. government’s immediate priorites as it looks to make a success of its departure from the E.U. has eased one of the seafood sector’s biggest fears regarding the Brexit negotiations that are now underway: that fisheries could be packaged into a broader multi-industry deal in pursuit of other, more lucrative agendas that might not serve its best interests.

On the eve of the fisheries bill announcement, which came in the recent Queen’s Speech – the event that traditionally opens parliament, with the monarchy listing the laws that the government hopes to get approved during the year ahead – delegates at the London seminar, “Priorities for U.K. fisheries policy – sustainability, trade, access and funding,” heard industry leaders and other key stakeholders warn about the dangerous ramifications of overlooking fisheries and the needs of the broader seafood supply chain while Brexit talks progressed.

Lord Robin Teversen, chair of the House of Lords’ E.U. select sub-committee on environment and energy, which also covers fisheries and farming, said a major concern is the sheer scale of policymaking now required from the government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which is responsible for getting good post-Brexit policies in place for agriculture and the environment, as well as for fisheries. He also warned the rule-makers to expect an a ferocious fishing industry should they fail to deliver a satisfactory package.

“Although fisheries is seen as a marginal sector to macro-economists, with something like 0.7 percent of the GDP – my goodness, the industry can make itself felt. Politically, it’s a very sensitive area and one that I am sure will dominate more of the Brexit negotiations than perhaps the GDP [share] would suggest. Whichever government it is that’s in power when we come to Brexit, if a wrong decision is taken on fisheries, they will get to know about it; that’s how important and politically charged this area is,” Teversen said.

“The other thing about fisheries that makes a [deal] even more important is that it’s the one area of Brexit on day one – 29 March, 2019 – that could see actual physical conflict if it goes wrong. We shouldn’t underestimate that importance when it comes to making sure that an agreement is reached,” he said.

The U.K. fishing industry is steadfast in the outcomes that it wants from the Brexit negotiations, including making the United Kingdom an independent coastal state, for quota shares to reflect the resources that are in U.K. waters, and for an exclusive 12-mile zone to protect inshore fisheries. It also wants as much of a free flow in trade as possible between the United Kingdom and the E.U., and Teversen added to this the equally high importance of maintaining close relationships with third-party countries and economies beyond the bloc once the trade agreements that E.U. membership brought the U.K. seafood supply chain are no longer valid.

“A large proportion of our catch is exported and a large proportion of the fish we consume is imported, so there are issues around tariffs, but fish are also a perishable product so customs barriers could also be a problem that needs to be overcome,” he said.

Andrew Kuyk, leader of the U.K. Seafood Industry Alliance, a recently-created body that represents the country’s processors and traders, agreed that there is much to be determined when it comes to seafood trade and access rights, but at the moment he believes that it is too early in the negotiation process to say with any confidence what the new regime might look like. He also stressed that the timescale for getting a deal in place was already incredibly short.

“In theory, there was two years for Article 50, but we have already lost about three months and people in Brussels are saying you can lop six months off the end for ratification purposes, so that leaves you something like 15 months for actual negotiations to get a deal.”

Employing more people than in the catching sector and with an overall annual turnover of GBP 4.2 billion (USD 5.3 billion, EUR 4.8 billion), processing stands to lose just as much from a bad deal as U.K. fishermen, Kuyk said.

Just as there are asymmetries in fishing with GBP 400 million (USD 509.1 million, E.U.R 455.4 million) worth of fish being caught annually by E.U. fishermen in U.K. waters, compared to GBP 100 million (USD 127.3 million, EUR 113.9 million) worth caught by the U.K. fleet in E.U. waters, there are asymmetries on the trade side, he said. 

“We are critically dependent on imports to meet consumer demand in the U.K. market, but most of those imports don’t come from the E.U. itself. In fact, total E.U. whitefish catches are around 400,000 metric tons (MT), compared to a market need of 2.5 million MT, so even if the E.U.’s Common Fisheries Policy was to become an overnight success in conservation terms or were the U.K. to have exclusive use of the resources in its own waters, that doesn’t fill the gap between supply and demand. The E.U. is a deficit market for fish with around two-thirds of all fish consumed resulting from imports.”

Furthermore, most U.K.-caught seafood is exported, and mainly to the E.U., so while a trade deal with the E.U. might provide market access for U.K. catchers to sell into the bloc, Kuyt said it wouldn’t necessarily allow processors to continue to import from other countries where the sector has until now relied upon arrangements brokered by the E.U.

It is also vitally important that sustainability and food safety standards are in no way compromised and should continue to be closely aligned with the best practices established in Europe, he said.

“Getting this deal wrong not only runs the risk of clashes at sea, but it could also undermine the reputation of the seafood industry. If consumers think that conservation has been jeopardized by political manoeuvrings and they lose confidence in the product, then they will stop buying fish; they will turn to other products like chicken and that will irreparably damage the industry as a whole. So our common interest [with the catching sector] is as much free trade as possible, but above all maintain the high and hard-won reputations for responsible management and responsible sourcing.”

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