With the EU finally beginning formal preparations for negotiations over its future economic relationship with the UK, it’s time to look again at an area that stands to gain from Brexit: fishing.
Once it leaves the EU, the UK will can undo former Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath’s catastrophic decision to sell out British fisheries for European Economic Community membership. British fishermen should see a substantial boost to their share of fishing quotas in UK waters. The important question now is just how substantial an economic boost this will be.
Under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) Britain has been forced by the EU to set rigid fishing quotas, often leading to healthy fish being thrown overboard – many of which die – to avoid exceeding the limits imposed by Brussels. The UK has had to surrender 70 per cent of the quotas in its own waters (defined as anything within 200 miles of the coast or the midpoint between Britain and a nearby country ).
How much of their own fish do non-EU countries retain? A good comparison to the UK is Norway, which is also blessed with substantial fishing waters, is Norway. They maintain a quota system similar to the CFP, but the proportions caught by domestic fishermen are much higher. In 2016 domestic fishermen took 84 per cent of fish caught in Norway. In Iceland the share is greater still; most years it is higher than 90 per cent of Iceland’s fishing catch goes to domestic fleets, according to the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture. These examples both point to a boost to British fishing from Brexit.
So just how much would taking back control of our fisheries bolster our economy? In 2015 fish was worth £1.661 billion in the UK economy. There were 12,107 fishermen employed in the UK, with a further 12,000 employed in the processing industry. Of the fishermen, 6,420 were based in England and Wales, 4,829 in Scotland, and 859 in Northern Ireland. Part-time fishermen accounted for approximately 19 per cent of the total. UK vessels landed 708,000 tonnes of sea fish into the UK and abroad with a value of £775 million; 12.7 per cent of the fish UK vessels landed were from foreign waters – the value of domestic catch alone being around £676.6 million.
If UK fisherman took the same share of domestic fish as their Norwegian counterparts, the value of domestic fish landings would jump from £676.6 million to £1,894.5 million. Factoring in an equivalent boost to fish processing, this could mean a £3 billion boost to the UK economy.
Of course, mapping Norway’s numbers onto Britain’s fishing industry is a fairly basic way of speculating on the industry’s future. But it does make the point that Brexit represents a substantial opportunity to the UK’s fishing industry. If this boost had a proportionate effect on employment in fishing, it would mean more than 20,000 new jobs in both fishing and fish processing.
In the same way, it could be anticipated around 21,792 fishing jobs could be gained, and around 21,600 fish processing jobs, for a total of 43,392 jobs in addition to the 24,107 currently employed in fishing and fish processing. That excludes potential secondary employment growth from jobs servicing the newly employed, on-shoring of fish processing jobs, and the creation of larger fishing firms.
The result wouldn’t just be more jobs, but more jobs in areas where they are badly needed. Again, assuming a proportionate distribution of these new jobs, around 8,692 of the potential 21,792 new positions created would theoretically accrue to Scotland, concentrated in the Islands, Highland towns and Ayr, rather than well-heeled Edinburgh. Almost half of the benefits going to Scotland, despite it representing around 8 per cent of the UK population, is almost ironic given how many Scots voted Remain, but there we go. Roughly 1,532 jobs would go to Wales, and 1,546 to Northern Ireland. Both Wales and Northern Ireland are substantially poorer than the UK as a whole, with GDP per capita of £18,002 and £21,770 respectively. Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate is substantially above the UK average at 5.7 per cent.
Relatively left behind regions of England would gain too. The North East, home to Brexit bastions like Tynemouth, Sunderland and Middlesborough, stands to gain 2,180 fishermen. The South West meanwhile could gain as many as 4,995, concentrated in the too often forgotten rural counties of Cornwall and Devon. Unemployment in the North East is 6.8 per cent. In the South West it is 3.7 per cent, though a large number of jobs in counties like Devon and Cornwall come and go with the tourist seasons. Clearly, these areas could do with a boost.
The North West would see the smallest benefits, only standing to gain around 164 fishermen. Prospective gains in the wealthy South East stand at 873 fishermen, in East Anglia at 896, in Lincolnshire at 670 and Yorkshire at 650.
This would mean a £3 billion boost to the economy, a gain of around 43,392 jobs, and all of this disproportionately benefiting relatively deprived coastal areas and so helping rebalance our economy. This is a prize worth fighting for. If the Government stays strong – and takes back control of our fisheries when the UK leaves the EU – we would have a true windfall from our waters.