Richard North, 01/05/2021  

At the turn of midnight, quietly, almost silently, the UK slid into a new phase in its relationship with the EU as the Trade and Cooperation Agreement came into force, following its delayed ratification by the European Parliament.

If there were any celebrations of this turning point in British history, they were so muted as to be invisible. Instead, what little legacy media space was afforded to Brexit-related subjects in the run-up to this event was largely devoted to the collapse of talks on a fishing quota deal with Norway.

That fishing should be an item is rather appropriate, given its prominence in the final stages of the TCA negotiations. But, as with so much material devoted to the subject of Brexit, much of the reporting has created more heat than light.

The Financial Times, for instance, headlined its report: "UK fishing industry furious over failure to strike Norway deal", with the sub-heading telling us that Defra "faces backlash after collapse of talks to secure access to waters that are a key source of cod".

A similar line was taken by the Telegraph with the headline: "Fishermen accuse Government of Brexit betrayal as Norway deal falls through", while the BBC contented itself with "Anger over government's failure to get Norway fishing deal".

The thrust of the story is that, with the break-down of negotiations, UK registered fishing boats will not have access to Norway's sub-Arctic seas, and the lucrative cod fishery. The quota, however, is largely exploited by a single supertrawler, the Kirkella (pictured), operating out of Hull. It is said to catch about ten percent of the fish sold in UK fish and chip shops.

Controlled by the multinational company UK Fisheries, jointly owned by Dutch and Icelandic companies, the owners were looking an increased quota in the aftermath of Brexit, the access previously having been negotiated by the EU on behalf of member states, including the UK. Now, the Kirkella will be tied up for a year, putting a number of jobs at risk.

But where the FT and the Telegraph go wrong – the one explicitly and the other by implication – is in treating the fishing industry as a monolithic, homogeneous entity, which is very far from the case, and then focusing largely on the fate of the Kirkella.

Apart from the regional differences, for instance, there are the very obvious distinctions between the inshore, mid-water and distant-water sectors. In terms of white fish, there are major differences between the demersal and the pelagic sectors, which very often have wholly different interests.

That much comes over from the Aberdeen-based Press and Journal, which gives a better clue to what is going on with its headline, which declares: "Failed fishing talks open up cross-border rift, with company chief claiming Brexit is for Scottish 'barons'".

In a comprehensive report, far longer than anything on offer from the English media, it has the Scottish pelagic sector saying that Brexit has broken a longstanding link between their catch – mainly mackerel and herring – and the cod-hungry requirements of a multinational fishing company.

Thus, while Peter Bruce, who skippers the Peterhead-registered white-fish trawler Budding Rose, says the failure to reach an agreement was a "disaster" and would cause "major problems", others are more concerned that "pandering" to demands from south of the border would directly deprive the Scottish fleet of a huge quantity of one stock – and force it to pay to lease much-needed quota for another.

Therefore, Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association chief executive Ian Gatt says that the talks highlighted "one clear benefit" of the UK taking part in annual negotiations on its own terms, rather than as a member of the EU. The fact the UK was now an independent coastal state meant that the link between Arctic cod and Scottish fish had been broken.

He explained that, historically, the Barents Sea cod quota had been secured in exchange for a significant share of Scottish fishing quota", a point expanded on by Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) chief executive Elspeth Macdonald.

She said that "Much has been made of the UK not having access to Arctic cod quota for this year, but this was not something the Scottish fleet derived a benefit from, and indeed was something that under the previous EU-Norway agreement, came at a considerable cost".

Any extra cod granted to the Kirkella would have been achieved by the UK providing reciprocal stocks in return. When the UK was part of the Common Fisheries Policy, the EU exchanged 100,000 tonnes of blue whiting to secure extra Barents Sea cod from Norway. Around 20,000 tonnes of that came from Scottish quota.

Because the Kirkella did not catch all the cod it was entitled to, some of that unused catch allowance was exchanged for saithe quota in the North Sea. That effectively saw the Scottish industry paying twice – firstly with 20,000 tonnes of blue whiting and then to lease back the saithe quota the unfished Arctic cod was swapped for.

A similar view is being taken by Shetland News, which has local fisherman putting "a positive spin" on events, saying that past agreements were brokered by the European Union and were heavily skewed against the local pelagic and demersal fleets.

Because the UK-Norway arrangement is a reciprocal deal, Shetland Fishermen's Association chief officer, Simon Collins, says: "in practical terms, Norway's loss of access to our waters this year will remove a substantial presence off their pelagic fleet during the autumn mackerel fishery in particular".

SFA chairman and whitefish skipper James Anderson adds that the inability of Norwegian vessels to fish for demersal stocks in the UK zone would lift the pressure off a highly active gillnet and longliner fleet to the east of Shetland.

"We are convinced that mutually advantageous annual agreements on access and quota transfers can be struck with Norway in the future", he says. "But Norway has to understand that we are not going to cave in, [European] Commission-style, to the detriment of Scottish businesses. It is far better to make that clear at the outset, and we are glad that this has been done".

Defra is certainly unrepentant. It says that the UK had put forward "very reasonable" offers, asking Norway to pay for access to UK waters to help correct what ministers believed was an "imbalance" in previous EU agreements. In 2019, the UK took just £31 million in fish from Norwegian waters while Norway landed £249 million-worth from UK waters.

And, even with the breakdown of the main talks, in a side deal, the UK has agreed access to 5,500 tonnes of fish in the waters around Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago, as well as shares for cod in these waters with the EU through the TCA, which comes into force today.

As for our fish and chip shops, there will be no shortage of cod but, that proportion which was previously caught by the multinational Kirkella will be caught by Norwegian boats and exported to the UK.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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