The UK fishing industry reacted angrily on Friday after the government failed to reach an annual reciprocal access agreement with Norway, in what it described as another post-Brexit blow to British fleets.
The backlash came after the agriculture department, Defra, announced that it had not been able to reach a deal with the Norwegian government, whose subarctic waters are a key source of cod, a fish favoured by UK consumers.
Jane Sandell, the chief executive of UK Fisheries, which owns the super trawler Kirkella that catches around 10 per cent of all the fish sold in UK chip shops, said the failure to strike a deal was a “very black day for Britain” and a “national embarrassment”.
The company said it had invested approximately £180m over the past 20 years in the Humberside fishing industry, with further investment of up to £100m planned, and that the lack of a deal imperilled the livelihoods of approximately 100 crewmen employed in and around Hull, on England’s north-east coast.
“[Environment secretary] George Eustice owes our crews and the Humberside region an explanation as to why Defra was unable even to maintain the rights we have had to fish in Norwegian waters for decades, never mind land the boasts of a ‘Brexit Bonus’, which has turned to disaster,” she said in a statement.
She added that the failure to close bilateral deals with any of the UK’s traditional partners around the north Atlantic, including The Faroes and Norway — would leave the UK reliant on imports of tariff-free cod. “Quite simply, this is a disgrace and a national embarrassment,” she concluded.
Scottish fishing industry representatives said that previous agreements with Oslo had involved conceding access to Scottish waters in exchange for UK access to Norwegian fishing grounds in the Barents Sea.
Ian Gatt, chief executive of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association, said that while it was “very disappointing” there would be no UK-Norway bilateral agreement in 2021, the UK decision to hold out against a deal had sent a clear signal on UK independence.
“There is one clear benefit — the fact that the UK is now an independent coastal state means we have been able to break the link between Arctic cod and Scottish fish,” he said.
Defra said in a statement that it had worked hard to secure a deal, but had said that it would only strike agreements if they were “balanced and in the interests of the UK fishing industry”, but this had not been possible.
“We put forward a fair offer on access to UK waters and the exchange of fishing quotas, but we have concluded that our positions remain too far apart to reach an agreement this year,” it said.
The government added that Norway was a key partner for the UK and work would continue with Oslo over the course of the year.
The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations said the failure to cut a deal would result in the “loss of very significant fishing opportunities” that would drive boats to compete in the already constrained waters of the North Sea and west of Scotland.
“The failure to reach agreement with Norway will mean a significant and absolute reduction in fishing opportunities for our fleets,” they said, adding that they would be lobbying ministers for additional support for affected vessels.
Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, which is not so reliant on access to Norwegian waters. said that Brexit had created a new dynamic between coastal states that would take time to settle down.
“The collapse of the negotiations with Norway is disappointing on a number of levels although it is important for the future that we strike the right balance in seeking any agreement,” he said.
Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said that while Scottish fleets were not directly affected, a deal would have helped the whitefish fleet in what was a very difficult year for the industry.
“The government’s failure to secure a good deal for fishing in the Brexit negotiations, alongside our fleet not having access to Faroese and Norwegian waters this year, means that our fishing opportunities and patterns for 2021 are very constrained,” she said.