To much fanfare, the UK announced last week that it is pulling out of an international agreement – the London Convention – that lets some countries fish in UK waters, and likewise, our boats to fish elsewhere. With Brexit talks beginning, its timing was as deliberate as the braggadocious tones in which it was unveiled.

Proponents of Britain ruling the waves once again heralded leaving the Convention as a first symbolic and practical step to us seizing back those waves from Johnny Brussels. Even though the 1964 Convention predates our membership and was very much – there’s a clue in the name – a work of our own doing, jingoism nonetheless dominated proceedings.

Step one – but in which direction?

Pulling out of the Convention is probably a good idea. It was one of the recommendations in our Who gets to fish? report on how fishing rights should be managed. The important bit though is not so much the withdrawal, or even the kicking out of different coloured flags, but what policies fill the gap.

In principle at least, withdrawing from the London Convention enables the UK more latitude to set rules on the types of fishing that happens in its waters. If we wanted to ban particularly damaging fishing methods from inshore waters it just got a bit easier.

Whether this actually happens depends on whether the Government will put communities and healthy seas ahead of a handful of very profitable floating juggernauts. Fishing policy should be all about protecting the health of the sea and ensuring that the exploitation of this collectively owned’ resource gives the biggest possible benefit to society. This would bring colossal economic, social and environmental benefits. But in the UK, it simply hasn’t worked like that. It must.

The important fishing news you didn’t hear about

The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which set limits on how much EU member states could fish, has been widely lambasted – sometimes fairly, sometimes less so. But it was the UK that has always decided who gets the right to fish. And its priorities were wrong. For the 40+ years of the CFP, the UK Government freely chose to award less than 2% of the right to fish (‘quota’) to the 78% of the UK fleet that’s made up of boats under ten metres – that is, the kind most people will have in their head when they think of a bonny fishing port. Concentrations of power result, with the 22 producer organisations’ – official representatives to government of the UK’s fishing industry who manage quota for their members – being massively dominated by the big guys.

Just as significant as the London Convention announcement, but far less heralded, was the announcement last week that there is now a Coastal Producer Organisation’ – which specifically gives control over quota management to the smaller boats that fish closer to shore. Again, supporting the formation of an inshore producer organisation was one of the recommendations in our Who gets to fish? report. This producer organisation will give inshore vessels more control over how quotas are allocated and shifted around within the group, while also giving fishers the power of a collective body. The small boats are still going to be outnumbered heavily by the other 22 POs, but it’s a good signal of intent, testament to many years of dogged work from the despairing inshore fleet.

The marathon journey to fair and sustainable fisheries

While at the headline economic level, fishing is pretty small fry (sorry) in the scheme of things – it employs 12,000 and contributes 0.05% to UK GDP – its importance is far more granular and local than that. Fishing remains vital for many of the UK’s coastal communities, and setting a viable future for sustainable fisheries is one important pathway to increased economic activity in these areas, as detailed in our Blue New Deal report.

By withdrawing from the London Convention, the UK Government has signalled its interest in this journey, but with all the bluster surrounding the announcement, there is a real danger in taking one step forward and two steps back.

Like it or not, fish couldn’t care less where we draw our lines on maps. All 45 of the UK’s quota species spend time in the waters of countries other than just the UK’s, and still will even if we manage to claim a 200-mile economic exclusion zone, as has been proposed. The CFP’s quota limits have started to work, with populations of imperilled species like cod returning to health. While scrapping the CFP is a cause celebre for many, including the Environment Secretary, there’s no way a sod you’ attitude is going to do anything useful at all.

This focus on flags is also a distraction from important domestic measures. It is vital that the inshore fleet has opportunities to fish (an increase in the <2% share) for their newly acquired power to be meaningful. That the formation of the Coastal PO passed under the radar is proof of the shadow Brexit casts over other policy spaces.

Sustainable and fair fishing policy won’t happen unless it’s actively designed to be so. Leaving the London Convention simply opens the space, but what we do with it will require much more understanding and much more work. There’s an ocean still to cross.