Everything you need to know about the Fisheries Bill

Alice Watson, public affairs assistant at the Marine Conservation Society, discusses the Fisheries Bill and its key provisions.

Fishing Boat

What is the history of the Bill?

The Fisheries Bill will be the UK’s first domestic fisheries legislation in over 40 years. Upon leaving the EU, the UK will become an independent coastal state in charge of managing its own waters. This presents a new opportunity to establish the UK and devolved nations as leaders in sustainable fisheries management.

The Fisheries Bill was first published in October 2018 but failed to progress beyond Committee stage in the House of Commons. A new version of the bill was introduced into the House of Lords at the end of January 2020 and has just finished Committee Stage.

What are the key provisions?

The Fisheries Bill is primarily a piece of framework legislation to govern UK fisheries after Brexit. It sets up a foundation for future fisheries policy to operate in and legitimately provides the UK with the legal power to exercise control of its waters.

The bill is underpinned by a set of key principles, aiming to act as the goalposts for a sustainable and profitable fishing industry. These aims are framed to achieve several outcomes, including:

• controlling access—the bill formally ends the automatic right for EU vessels to access UK fishing waters. In its place, there will be new licencing requirements for any fishing vessel that operates within the UK

• a joint management approach—fisheries is a devolved matter, but as the administrations share key stocks, the bill aims to achieve a ‘common framework’ for collective management. This will be achieved through Joint Fisheries Statements (JFS), where devolved authorities are required to set out how they aim to achieve the key objectives in the bill. The bill also introduced the concept of ‘Fisheries Management Plans’ (FMP), which are intended to lay out the details of how they will achieve sustainable fisheries

• distributing fishing opportunities—the Secretary of State will be given the power to determine fishing opportunities for the UK

• sustainable fisheries—the bill aims to ensure the long-term sustainability of UK fisheries by in-troducing sustainability objectives that are dealt with in the JFS

What will be the main differences when the UK becomes an independent coastal state and the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) ceases to apply?

• ocean borders and management responsibility—previously the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of EU Member States were jointly managed and shared under the CFP and except for territorial waters, Member States had equal access. When the transition period comes to an end, the UK will independently manage all waters out to 200nm and be responsible for sus-tainably managing all fish stocks

• legally binding sustainability criteria- the CFP was EU law and included some clear criteria and targets for sustainable fishing that Member States were legally expected to adhere to. In its current form, the bill includes loopholes that would make it easy for the UK and devolved fisheries authorities not to achieve the objectives of the bill, including meeting targets for sustainable fishing

• allocating fishing opportunities- currently, EU ministers meet annually to agree on the Total Allowable Catches (TACs) of fish stocks. The UK shares over 100 fish stocks with the EU and it is assigned its portion of the EU’s TAC under the relative stability principle, which uses a fixed key, based on historical catches. This has been criticised for not changing in line with the distribution of stocks. Going forward, the UK will set its own TAC for fish stocks and the government proposes to do this through zonal attachment (where quota is divided based on the waters where they reside) in an attempt to secure more quota. However, the UK’s shared stocks must be negotiated with the EU and other third countries like Norway, and there is currently no agreement on how these negotiations will take place. There are also no provisions in the bill on how to manage these shared stocks sustainably

How does the bill differ to the October 2018 version and why have these changes been made?

There are a handful of new provisions that have been introduced since the October 2018 version of the bill.

The fisheries objectives have been updated to include the ‘climate change objective’ to manage fisheries in a climate-smart way, reflecting a greater understanding of the links between climate change and fishing. The ‘national benefit objective’ is another new provision which requires that fishing must bring about social or economic benefits to the UK. The ‘bycatch objective’ has replaced the ‘discard objective’ and the definition of an ‘ecosystem-based approach’ has also been updated to acknowledge the link between fishing and the health of the marine ecosystem; two areas that have previously been siloed. These changes show that the government is starting to embrace the concept of holistic fisheries management, although the objectives can be disregarded in certain circumstances, including for socio-economic reasons.

Another key change is the introduction of FMPs. While these have the potential to deliver recovery of overfished stocks, as currently drafted there are too many legal loopholes and not enough environmental safe-guards. In particular, the authorities can choose not to put in place FMPs for particular stocks, including those that are overfished.

Are we likely to see any more changes made before Royal Assent?

Due to Westminster’s current political makeup, any changes would need to be backed by government support. However, there is evidence of cross-party consensus in recent debates, which is promising. As an example, the call for Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) technology and CCTV cameras to be rolled out on all vessels fishing in UK waters, is one issue area that has gained support across the benches. The pro-vision would help monitor catches, reduce overfishing and provide transparency and better data to really transform the way we manage UK fisheries. While the bill has been welcomed by many as a piece of framework legislation, there are a handful of loop-holes that exist within the current form of the bill and these must be addressed and strengthened to deliver truly world-leading fisheries management.

Interviewed by Marie-Gabrielle Williams for Lexis Nexis.