After months of delay, allegedly due to power struggles with the devolved administrations, a leaked copy of Defra’s White Paper on a new post-Brexit UK fisheries policy is ready for consultation. Well, not quite. This is not a White Paper on a new fisheries policy but rather a new future action” for whenever and whatever relationship is struck with the EU.

The issue, it seems, is that Brexit realities have begun to set in at Defra. Chief among these realities is that there is still much to be negotiated in the UK’s withdrawal and fisheries – as Michael Gove was forced to admit when fisheries were included in the transition period.

The leaked White Paper is remarkably candid on this point:

It is proposed that the Bill will enable government to act in the future. It does not as some have called for, create a new fisheries policy. This is because we do not yet know the outcome on the UK’s negotiations to withdraw from the EU or on a future economic partnership. The negotiations on an implementation period may also have a bearing on when new powers can be exercised.”

While this pours cold water over some the promises made to the fishing industry during the referendum campaign, it comes as no surprise to some close to the EU negotiations. Many of these experts have been emphasising that while the UK government tries to label the transition period an implementation period” it is nothing of the sort. There may be an actual transition period to follow the implementation period, pushing back the date for any new UK fisheries policy.

All of this is very annoying for the fishers whose expectations have been raised and then dashed, but in reality it is extremely critical to get the implementation right. Even under a scenario where the UK reaps great quota gains from Brexit, half the fleet fishes non-quota species for export, mostly to the EU market. For these fishers one issue alone — hygiene checks at approved Border Inspection Posts — has the potential to impact their future prospects more than any of the contents in this White Paper.

And it is not only about trade flows. Even drawing a border around the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone would mean we continue to share over 100 stocks with the EU (only one, Clyde herring would be an exclusively UK fish stock). This means that without an arrangement on how to share quota post-Brexit there is a huge risk of overfishing. Finally, it seems, Brexit realities may be having their day over Brexit bluster.

Finally, it seems, Brexit realities may be having their day over Brexit bluster

So, what of the White Paper contents? On quota management, again there is a let down for those looking for a root-and-branch reform of UK fisheries policy anytime in the near future. The White Paper notes that quota gained through Brexit could be allocated on a different basis but refuses to address the issue of current quota holdings. The small-scale fishers, largely shut out of the fishing sector, have been sounding the alarm over the continuation of existing quota holdings, but to no avail. It is true that the way the UK government has managed its quota — and it has always been a responsibility of the UK government — has led to an accidental privatisation of fishing quota, but this need not be the end of the story. Denmark has had the same basic quota system but recently reallocated quota to the small-scale, low-impact fleet.

The small-scale fishers, largely shut out of the fishing sector, have been sounding the alarm over the continuation of existing quota holdings, but to no avail.

What makes this failure to address existing quota holdings more frustrating is the fact that everyone in fisheries, including Defra, will admit that a mistake was made in the past with a one-off gifting of a public resource, for free, to private commercial users based on their track records. The White Paper states that Defra will look to allocate any new quota as public assets, in ways that help deliver our new management regime” but why not use this as an opportunity to correct mistakes made?

To be clear, the proposed approach for any quota gains looks very good. The White Paper states that Defra:

“…will consider the establishment of a Reserve of quota to be managed…in accordance with new criteria to meet the future needs of the industry. We will consider allocating some new quota within the reserve through a tendering system which will aim to deliver sustainable fisheries, to promote the economic interests of coastal communities, to create opportunities for new entrants to the industry and to fund a world-class fisheries management system.”

For nearly a decade now, New Economics Foundation has been arguing for exactly this type of thinking in Defra. As fish stocks are a public resource, we should be designing our fisheries policy to work in the public interest. This means allocating quota not just on historic track records (as is currently the case) or based on profitability (as some have proposed) but on the social, environmental, and economic objectives for marine fisheries. Fully in line with the statement above, NEF has produced research on criteria-based quota allocation, a Quota Reserve” to help new entrants into the industry who were not around when quota was initially gifted, and a landings tax to fund the management system. A consideration” is a step, albeit a timid one, in the right direction.

As fish stocks are a public resource, we should be designing our fisheries policy to work in the public interest.

This leaked White Paper contains some progress on a number of issues and has admirable commitments to sustainability and using quota gains in the public interest. What is unfortunate, however, is that some of the larger issues are still very much up in the air, including whether there will be a new fisheries policy at all. This stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric used during the referendum. Over the coming months NEF will be working with fishing communities around the UK to ensure that the resulting legislation — fisheries policy or otherwise — delivers for them.