As we take back control of our fishing waters, ministers must provide the resources to police our seas
The UK will need to police its Exclusive Economic Zone against the risk of EU trawler owners pushing their luck and testing UK resolve. As the paper explores, this has happened in the past, the difference being then that on both occasions the skippers in question were legally in the right. While a minority of foreign trawlers undoubtedly do have a fair claim arising from centuries of historic rights, there will be others (particularly the larger ones) where it would be prudent to already now be making a demonstration of the UK’s commitment to protect its sovereign rights as it will be entitled to do under international law. This involves sensible deterrence through demonstrating the likelihood of being interdicted and highlighting the financial consequences of breaching the law.
The first part of that equation relates to credibility, and that can only be achieved by having capable assets in play. That means, for example, that the Government must urgently reverse the current process of decommissioning patrol vessels. It is particularly bizarre, for example, that the fisheries vessel HMS Severn was laid off as recently as last October, suggesting a distinct lack of joined up thinking over Brexit policy.
There are two realities in play here. Firstly, a surge policing capability will be needed to cover the immediate transition period after Brexit, to act as a credible deterrent at the point of change. Obviously, this will need to be geared around seasonal stock migration, as well as general demands for monitoring closed areas.
Secondly, there is the matter of the general state of underfunding of the UK’s armed forces, including its wider naval capabilities. This incorporates home waters patrolling, but also covers future funding requirements to rescue the nation’s rare amphibious capability and its anti-submarine capacity. These latter issues arise from the dire consequences of myopic Treasury funding policy, and are separately covered in a separate Veterans for Britain paper on the 2% GDP floor. To quote co-author, Rear-Admiral Roger Lane-Nott:
“As the political waters are changing, there is a clear need for more fishery protection and commitments in this area could not come soon enough. This is of course additional to the need for a revival in inshore capability for coastal and mine protection.”
In practical interim terms, the UK needs surface vessels during a surge period. The Government should extend the lifetime of retiring vessels, and (given slow build times) look at hiring ‘sloops’ to temporarily support the under-resourced Fishery Protection Squadron ahead of Brexit. There will also be a role for increased aerial surveillance, currently provided by private contract.
But even the prospect of innovatively deploying UAVs has practical limits as a deterrent unless you also have the platforms for boarding. Meanwhile, with stretched resources, the Royal Navy must also now turn to NATO partners at this stage in the deployments planning cycle, adjusting its scheduled international commitments to ensure an adequate level of assets active in home waters until capacity is rebuilt in the 2020s or any disputes that do emerge are resolved.
We can put it quite simply as this: if we seriously intend to finally take back control of our fisheries, we must give Michael Gove the tools to do the job.