Taking Back the Fishing Waters Means Being Able to Patrol Them

Taken at Robin Hoods Bay.

Dr Lee Rotherham, executive director of Veterans for Britain, says planning for the repatriation of UK fishing waters must involve having the tools to protect them. This article was originally published by BrexitCentral here.

When someone who beats you at something gives you some friendly and well-meant advice, it’s sensible to take it. So when BrexitCentral contributor Hjörtur Guðmundsson suggests that the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is dreadful and the UK should get well rid out of it, we should take heed. After all, he hails from Iceland – the country that beat the UK in not one but three Cod Wars.

Iceland won, I would suggest, for two key reasons. In the first place, the Government fully supported its fishing community. Secondly, under developing international law, it had right on its side. So as we move towards setting up our own fishing policy after Brexit, we would do well to take note of both.

Brexit gives us the opportunity to take back control of our sovereign waters. Until now, the vast majority of what would be UK territorial waters have been managed – or rather grossly mismanaged – under the CFP. Once outside of the EU, the UK is absolutely entitled to reclaim thousands of square miles of rich fishing grounds for itself.

Dumping the CFP also means getting outside the wider strategic horizons associated with it. Although this is too little appreciated, the CFP constitutes merely one element of a much wider EU ambition: the Common Maritime Policy. This involves communitarising everything from maritime surveillance to off-shore energy production, shipping routes to carbon storage, aquaria to mariners. Like so many other areas of the EU, signing up to one (often seemingly incongruous) area has far wider policy ramifications and obligations that seep out over time.

The UK needs swiftly to get out of the CFP and – significantly – there is no tangible reason why it should stay in during the transition period. But to secure this process of taking back control, the UK will need to be in a position to police it.An important new paper from Veterans for Britain seeks to explore what the Government needs to be doing right now to secure this. The assets and planning needed for Day One need to be prepped.

There is no clear sense this is happening, probably because it needs different government departments and local government agencies all geared up and all talking to each other.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.


Dr Lee Rotherham is executive director at Veterans for Britain and is also director of think-tank The Red Cell and was director of special projects at Vote Leave.


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