What does the EU referendum result mean for fish and fishing?

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27 Jun

Angling Trust’s Chief Executive Mark Lloyd considers what Brexit may mean for fish and angling in UK.

The short answer to the question posed in this title is that no-one yet knows. All we know is that by a fairly small margin the majority of people who voted in the referendum opted to leave the EU, and that we will have a new prime minister (and probably a new leader of the opposition) by the autumn.

Things are unlikely to be much clearer until then and there may have to be another general election to allow people to have a say about the direction of our next steps into what David Cameron called uncharted territory. There may even be another referendum in Scotland about independence which could lead to the break-up of the UK.

The Angling Trust remained neutral about the referendum out of respect for the wide range of views of our membership about the issue. Our job is to represent our members when there is a clear consensus about an issue. Now that the referendum has been held, we now need to fight for the best deal for fish and fishing amidst the mayhem that has been created. 

Many EU Directives are vitally important for protecting fish and there are many in the environmental sector who are concerned that they will be torn up. However, if we are to remain in the Single Market, which seems more likely than not, we are probably going to have to abide by many of the rules of the European club. Someone once told me that the only country to implement all EU environmental directives is Norway, which is not an EU member. I don’t know if this is precisely true, but the point is clear; countries outside the EU, but wishing to have unfettered trade with it, must follow its rules to avoid giving them an unfair advantage.

We will be pressing for EU environmental legislation such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, Water Framework Directive, Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive and the Habitats Directive, all of which are already written into UK law, to be maintained and implemented in full to protect fish, other aquatic species and habitats. It’s unlikely, in my view, that they will be repealed in the near future but there’s no doubt there are those who would wish to see them gone. At the moment all our agencies remain committed to a process of implementing these important protections and we simply don’t have enough civil servants to write and consult upon the legislation that would be required to replace them, particularly in light of the past 8 years’ of cuts to government departments. 

However, in leaving the EU there is a risk that these Directives will slowly be watered down over the years that follow and that the UK might not be subject to revisions, in which case we will have to fight for new safeguards to protect rivers from pollution, abstraction and hydropower. There may be an upside to this in the form of opportunities for greater freedom for fishery managers to control predators, but in the grand scheme of things these Directives protect more fish than predators kill. 

And it’s not just the Directives that are important as there’s also a host of European Union regulations covering important issues like emissions and pollution control which need to be defended. If the European Communities Act is repealed all of these will cease to apply to the UK and this would have a substantial effect on our environmental protection framework. 

The European Commission will no longer be able to hold our government’s feet to the fire on these issues in the future, so the Angling Trust & Fish Legal may have to fight more legal battles and judicial reviews (which are expensive and risky) to protect fish stocks.

Leaving the EU could mean an end to EU subsidies for farmers which are subject to some very complicated and inefficient rules but, given the political influence of the well-funded NFU, the UK government is likely to fund these in future. The AT will continue to press for sensible regulation of agriculture to reverse the growing impact it is having on the water environment. We have always maintained, and will continue to maintain, that subsidies should be linked to the achievement of improved outcomes for the water environment. There is an opportunity for a simpler system that would be less of a burden to farmers, allow more appropriate measures for the UK landscape and reduce pollution. 

The marine fisheries picture is probably the most complicated of all. For all the talk of taking control of our own waters, the boundary line will be difficult to define given our proximity to other countries, and our commercial fleet currently spends a great deal of its time fishing in EU waters. It may well be that commercial fishing pressure could actually increase in some UK waters which is the last thing we need to see. 

Then there’s the tricky question of the ‘grandfather’ fishing rights of other nations to fish ‘our’ waters (and vice versa) established long before the EU came on the scene become more apparent. Above all else fish are highly migratory creatures and will not respect any new lines that are drawn on maps so it’s difficult to see how there cannot be some sort of UK involvement in a Common Fisheries Policy of sorts.

Whatever the future holds anglers can be sure that the Angling Trust will continue to fight to ensure any new arrangements for sea fisheries management benefit both fish stocks and recreational sea anglers and that we continue to stress the far greater economic and social value of recreational sea angling when it comes to allocating catches. 

And then there is the economy. All this uncertainty, coupled with the prospect of more complicated trading arrangements with Europe, may well lead us back into a recession. Apart from the wide-ranging impacts that this will have on people’s personal lives, it will also be bad for fishing and the many jobs that it supports. As they have done in recent years, people will cut back on expenditure, buy fewer day tickets, drop their club memberships and buy less tackle. There may even be more cuts to the already heavily-sliced Environment Agency and Defra which will give them even less resources to add to the contributions of anglers via the rod licence, so there will be less protection for fisheries. 

Immigration was a key issue in the referendum debate, but leading figures in the Leave campaign are now distancing themselves from claims that it will be much reduced in the future as a result of the vote last week. Free movement of labour may well be one of the conditions in trade negotiations. What is undeniable is that there has been a nasty side to parts of the referendum campaign and some people in migrant communities have been left feeling uncertain and insecure. 

The Angling Trust will continue to work with the Environment Agency to support our migrant anglers and to ensure that they have the necessary information to fish responsibly. We are proud of our team in the Building Bridges Project and the work that they do to bring the angling community together. We will continue to develop our highly successful partnership with the EA’s enforcement teams and the Police to tackle fish theft and poaching. The vast majority of anglers would be appalled by some of the racism and hatred that has been targeted at migrants and ethnic minorities in recent days. Hopefully this will be a short-lived phenomenon and we should all make it clear that it is unacceptable on social media and by the water. 

The changes in the top teams at Westminster will mean that we will have to build new relationships with ministers and shadow ministers but we have done this before. We have strong relationships across all sides of politics and on both sides of the referendum debate. Our National Campaigns Co-ordinator Martin Salter has immense experience of the political process, and he will be working closely with the All Party Parliamentary Angling Group, which includes some very influential MPs, to influence the debate. We have become an important member of the European Anglers Alliance in recent years, with our Head of Marine David Mitchell chairing the Sea Sub Group and Head of Freshwater Mark Owen representing the Alliance in Brussels on several freshwater issues, and this will give us the ability to understand and influence negotiations in the coming months. 

One thing is very clear: at a time of immense political turmoil, the need is greater than ever for individuals, clubs and fisheries to join the Angling Trust & Fish Legal to give us the resources and political weight of numbers to speak up for fish and fishing and if necessary take legal action to influence the many fundamental decisions which will be made about management of fisheries, and the freedom for anglers to fish for them, over the coming months and years. If you’re not a member already, please join us here: www.anglingtrust.net/join

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