View from Dublin: Irish fishermen have a lot to lose from Brexit
Arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg missed the boat in more ways than one last week. Firstly, the UK exit agreement from the EU left fisheries quotas as they were until 2021.
This means the UK will not get control of its own sea territory for fishing, as promised. Then he literally missed the boat being used to hold a protest along the River Thames near Westminster, as it hadn’t been cleared to land and pick him up.
Former Ukip leader and now radio presenter Nigel Farage decided to throw dead fish into the river as a protest. Hopefully they won’t come back to bite Irish fishermen in 2021, when the UK will have the freedom to ban non-British boats from fishing in its waters if it chooses.
The difficulty for the Republic is that around 36% of Irish fish landings are taken from UK waters. For example, some 64% of Ireland’s mackerel catch is taken in the UK zone off the coast of Scotland. Around 39% of Ireland’s prawn catch is from the UK zone.
If the UK does decide to block EU or other boats from its waters, it could be disastrous for our fishing communities.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove told the British fishing industry, which is livid with the new agreement reached in Brussels, to hang on and wait for the ‘big prize’ that awaits it in 2021.
Gove is the one who signalled early on that the UK would pull out of the Common Fisheries Policy, when he said he was going to take the UK out of the 1964 London Fisheries Convention as a first step. This convention allows vessels from France, Germany, the Republic and the Netherlands to fish within six and 12 nautical miles of the UK coastline.
But before rushing to judgment about the risks to the Irish fishing fleet and potential fish exports, there are some factors going in our favour. EU vessels catch a lot more fish in UK waters than UK vessels catch in EU waters, which should give the British a strong negotiating hand to play.
In theory, EU fleets could lose 500 to 600 vessels if they were excluded from UK waters, according to some estimates.
From 2011 to 2015, European fleets caught 700,000 tonnes of fish and seafood in British waters, valued at around €610m.
Meanwhile, during the same period, British vessels caught just 92,000 tonnes, valued at £110m. However, if the British were to ban foreign or at least EU vessels from its waters after 2021, the EU would simply put a huge tariff on British fish exports to EU countries.
As it stands, the UK exports around 80% of its wild-caught seafood and the top four or five destinations are European countries. Tariffs would hurt British seafood exporters hard.
Equally, the Brexiteers have talked the talk around taking back control of their waters, but the deal done with Brussels implies the same share of the overall EU catch until 2021, with no real effective say in any EU fishing policies during that period.
If British fishermen feel they were hung out to dry by the EU fisheries deal of 1983, they could easily become a bargaining chip in bigger trade talks around access to the EU markets for London-based financial services.
I know who would win that battle between whitefish and wealth management.
Irish boats fish a lot in UK waters and in fact some Northern Ireland boats travel down the Irish Sea to fish off the Co Louth coast.
A ban could end up being mutual. However, perhaps the arguments in London and Brussels over the border, the Good Friday Agreement and the north/south economy, could leave scope for a bilateral deal between Ireland and the UK over fishing rights.
If the UK does pull out of the Common Fisheries Policy after 2021, Ireland should do a side deal on fisheries. After all, fisheries and access to territories isn’t automatically covered by standard EU trade deals, but forms separate policy agreements.
The government should use any leverage it has in London or Brussels to maintain open access for Irish boats.