Scottish fishing chiefs have delivered a fierce warning to the UK’s EU partners to desist from “vengeful” behaviour at crunch quota talks starting in Brussels today.
With this year’s December Fisheries Council taking place against a background of Brexit chaos, the fear is that ministers from the 27 other EU nations will seek to pile pressure on British fishers.
And despite the UK’s fisheries negotiating team potentially facing a backlash, Fishing Minister George Eustice has chosen, initially anyway, not to travel to Belgium.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said Mr Eustice would be busy steering the UK Governments Fisheries Bill through Parliament this week, although he was “trying his utmost” to be in Brussels at some stage.
Unusually, the talks are starting without any offical confirmation of quota decisions reached in earlier negotiations between the EU, Norway and Faroe.
Scottish fishers are believed to be facing large cuts to their cod and haddock catch allowances.
The industry in Shetland is already fuming over a rollover of controversial access arrangements for Faroese boats fishing for mackerel around the islands.
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Further concerns relate to the EU’s insistence on achieving conflicting priorities such as completing the roll-out of the discard ban without addressing the problem of “choke” species, which use up quota and force boats back into port, at the same time as proposing significant reductions in catch limits for key stocks.
In addition, Scottish fishing chiefs are watchful over any move by EU partners to try to make access rights for UK waters part of any Brexit trade deal.
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) said yesterday it was not in the interests of the “EU27” to adopt hardline positions.
SFF chief executive Bertie Armstrong added: “We are getting close to the point where Britain leaves the EU, and this will be the last December Fisheries Council that we attend before we begin the transition to coastal state in our own right.
“Sensible management of fish stocks is extremely difficult when you are facing the double whammy of an unworkable discard ban that takes little account of the mixed fishery in Scottish waters – and, therefore, the issue of choke species – and significant cuts to key stocks such as cod and haddock that will exacerbate this problem.
“Given that we have a fisheries agreement to negotiate, it would be utter folly for the EU to try to exact retribution on the UK by further punishing our hard-working fishermen instead of analysing the situation dispassionately and looking for a series of sensible, practical solutions to these problems.”
Defra’s negotiating team goes into the crunch talks under the leadership of Under Secretary Lord Gardiner of Kimbls, a life peer with no obvious strong links to fishing but who has described wresting control of UK waters from Brussels as “a force for good”.
A Defra spokeswoman said: “Minister Eustice will be seeing the Fisheries Bill through Parliament this week – a landmark piece of legislation that will help build a sustainable, profitable industry for future generations of UK fishermen as we leave the EU.
“Alongside these commitments, he is trying his utmost to attend December Council and is across all preparations ahead of the negotiation process.”
Scottish Fisheries Secretary Fergus Ewing, who is in Brussels to support the UK negotiating team, said the stakes at this week’s talks “could not be higher”.
Mr Eustice’s absence from such important discussions over the immediate future of UK fishing would be a shock to many people, Mr Ewing said, adding: “That decision is as perplexing to me as it is frustrating.
“It has had the effect of galvanising my team to redouble our efforts in making sure that Scotland’s voice is heard.”
The December Fisheries Council is taking place today, tomorrow and potentially early Wednesday.
Concerns about a possible Brexit backlash were stoked by negototiations between the EU and non-EU fishing nations that have already taken place as part of the annual quota-setting process.
According to one industry source, these talks were “particularly difficult” in terms of how the UK’s fishing interests were treated.
In October, Mr Ewing warned that negotiation “dynamics” were likely to be different this year because of the wider political landscape.
Industry chiefs south of the border fear that fishing “wars” could reignite following Brexit.
In August, rocks and smoke bombs were launched by more than 30 French vessels towards five British boats off the coast of Normandy in a protest over access rights for valuable scallop fisheries.
The UK is stuck with the obligations and constraints of the much-despised Common Fisheries Policy for at least another couple of years.
But Scottish fishing chiefs expect that by 2021, following the end of the Brexit transition period, the UK will be joining the annual EU-Norway talks and multilateral coastal state negotiations as an independent voice.