Britain has agreed a new fisheries deal with the European Union over how to divide up shared stocks in the year ahead, prompting dismay among environmentalists.
Under the Brexit trade deal, London and Brussels are required to annually agree on catch quotas and fishing rights in the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean – a separate affair from the row over fishing licences which has sparked threats of a trade war and prompted French trawlers to blockade the Channel.
In contrast to the tone typically ascribed to the spat with France – and thorny negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol – European minister Joze Podgorsek hailed the agreement as being “thanks to good will and a constructive approach on both sides”, setting “a good precedent for future negotiations with the UK”.
Environment secretary George Eustice also welcomed the “balanced agreement”, which the government said will provide around 140,000 tonnes of fishing opportunities for UK fleets, estimated to be worth around £313m, based on historic landing prices.
One fishing industry expert told The Independent that the deal “largely follows the same pattern” as the first annual deal, which was only struck in June, reportedly after months of difficult talks mired in disputes over how to both meet environmental aims and ensure maximum access for fishermen.
“Nevertheless, the signs are that the underlying tensions arising from the UK’s departure from the EU have been in evidence throughout this set of negotiations,” said Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO).
While Mr Deas said the negotiations themselves had been “utterly opaque”, causing “palpable” frustration among industry representatives, he claimed that the European Commission “appears to have had a torrid time with some of its member states”.
But despite the avoidance of a political stand-off across the Channel, environmentalists greeted the deal with alarm.
Lamenting that Wednesday’s agreement “should have been the beginning of a new post-Brexit era of truly sustainable, science-based fisheries management”, ClientEarth expert Jenni Grossmann said that instead of giving vulnerable fish stocks “a decisive nudge towards recovery”, ministers had “chosen to keep them on the brink”.
Stocks, such as cod in the Celtic Sea and west of Scotland, will continue to hover on the brink of commercial extinction, she said.
“Just like in pre-Brexit times, they have continued to prioritise short-term commercial interests over long-term sustainability for both fish and fishers – perpetuating the dire state of these depleted stocks,” Ms Grossmann said.
And others suggested the deal did not live up to a post-Brexit commitments towards sustainable fishing.
“The agreed ambition expressed in the [Brexit trade deal] was that of recovering shared fish populations and maintaining them above healthy levels,” said Vera Coelho, senior director of advocacy at the Oceana environmental group.
“This is lacking in the current agreement as certain fish populations, like west of Scotland herring, Irish Sea whiting or Celtic Sea cod, will continue to be overexploited in 2022.”
But Mr Deas, of the NFFS, complained that catch limits for a range of species appeared to have been “artificially” set below scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, “ostensibly to protect cod”, claiming that UK ministers seemed to have taken the lead during negotiations “in promoting a hardline approach, presumably to placate the environmental lobby”.
“This does not amount to a coherent or convincing approach to doing what can be done to maintain cod stocks during a period of rapid environmental change whilst maintaining viable fisheries on other stocks,” he said.
The deal also commits the UK and EU to “rapidly develop” new strategies to ensure the sustainable management of non-quota species, which can be thrown back into the sea after being caught.
But both parties agreed not to apply fishing limits to these species – which include gurnards, catfish, weevers and squid – in the year ahead.
“This is likely to be one of the most important, complex, and sensitive policy areas during 2022 and beyond,” Mr Deas said.
In a statement, the environment secretary Mr Eustice said the talks had “secured certainty for the incoming year, adding: “The balanced agreement made today provides a strong foundation as we seek to deliver more sustainable fisheries management, as set out in our landmark Fisheries Act.”