With a no-deal Brexit looking a distinct possibility, conflict over fishing rights looks likely to create a complex enforcement challenge for the Royal Navy’s fishery protection vessels.
Lets not “send in the gunboats”
Provocative clickbait tabloid headlines suggesting we “send in the gunboats” if the UK does not get its way on fishing rights are a national embarrassment. The oldest standing commitment for the Royal Navy is fishery protection duty which continues round the clock and is nothing new. The ships carry light armament but for good reason, the resort to force has never been used on fishermen in living memory. The term “gunboat” is not a recognised naval term and is fraught with unhelpful connotations from the days of empire when Britain imposed its will on inferior maritime powers.
The RN’s job is to uphold UK interests, on occasions, this might mean resort to force, but in this instance would be entirely counter-productive. Even the suggestion that we would consider casually opening fire on civilian boats trespassing in UK waters would break international law, hinder negotiations as well as damaging the UK’s reputation across the world. Sinking a fishing vessel would immediately put British fishermen in similar danger, see a total embargo on fish exports and restrictions to port access.
The role of the Fishery Protection Squadron is to monitor, inspect and notify fishermen of all nations if in breach of regulations, whether fishing in prohibited areas, using incorrect size of nets or having an unsafe vessel. In extreme cases, this can include bringing boats into port to be impounded and skippers tried in court. Should sensible relations with the EU break down, it is likely British boats might be impounded in tit-for-tat type operations. France and other European nations have navies of their own and the ability to enforce what they would see as being their national interest. Britannia no longer rules the waves, an even if it did, a responsible nation does not kill civilians in fishing disputes. Fishermen already have one of the most difficult and dangerous occupations, without asking them to operate in a conflict zone.
This dispute may have some parallels with the ‘Cod War’, a long-running dispute between Britain and Iceland over fishing grounds in the North Atlantic that flared on and off between the 1950-70s. During the third ‘Cod war’ the RN deployed up to 3 frigates at a time with supporting auxiliaries attempting to stop Icelandic coastguard vessels cutting the nets of British Trawlers. There were multiple ramming incidents with several frigates sustaining serious damage but at no time did either side open fire. Despite so many clashes in dangerous waters, fortunately no one was killed on either side. Although having many more frigates than today, the commitment badly impaired the RN’s ability to sustain its primary NATO duties. Eventually, Britain backed down, in hard pragmatic terms the financial cost and impact on the fleet was not justifiable in relation to the income from the fishing industry and Iceland was a key NATO partner.
The thin grey line
Offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) are the primary instrument for fishery protection and the MoD says on 1st January 2021, two will be at sea, with a further two at readiness. Likely HMS Tyne, HMS Mersey, HMS Severn and HMS Tamar. This is a sustainable posture and only marginally more robust than what has been routinely maintained for the past couple of decades. The UK Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is large and as we have noted before, the RN lacks the number of hulls to police it effectively although, it is supported by airborne assets and satellite imagery. What can be relied upon is the RN’s experience, calm professionalism in boarding operations and seamanship in the frequently stormy seas that surround the UK.
The RN succeeded in saving the 3 Batch I River-class OPVs from being sold in 2018, partly justified by a hard Brexit scenario. However the 5 new Batch II OPVs form the “Overseas Patrol Squadron” and are really intended to be forward-deployed overseas to relieve pressure on the frigate/destroyer force. HMS Forth is in the Falklands, HMS Medway in the Caribbean and HMS Trent has just returned to the UK from her second spell in the Mediterranean. The brand new HMS Spey is working up and along with HMS Tamar currently at high readiness, may be retained in UK waters for now. Essentially the RN has 5 or 6 OPVs to call upon at present but only 2 or 3 are likely to be at sea at any one time. Scotland polices its own waters has three Marine Protection Vessels (MPVs) and two Cessna Caravan II F-406 aircraft.
A valid claim
There is a good argument that Britain is simply reclaiming the fishing rights it surrendered when it subscribed to the European Common Fisheries Policy in 1970. Effectively the policy gave EU states equal access to each other’s EEZ. Naturally, as an island state, the UK has one of the largest EEZs and was badly disadvantaged by the CFP. This has been a long-running source of resentment against the EU going back decades. The CFP has some benefits, notably in attempting to conserve fish stocks and ensuring quality and labelling standards. Much more contentious are fixed quotas and limits to the number of days fishermen can spend at sea. Many British fishing communities have been decimated by the CFP and resent the presence of European boats fishing in the UK waters. Objectively the UK has an entirely fair claim under established international law that pre-dates any agreement with the EU to take back control of its waters but the process needs very sensitive management.
It was always unrealistic to expect the EU simply to give up on access to the UK EEZ immediately after Brexit. A lengthy transition and a sensible policy of give and take would be needed. Many of the fish species caught by British fisherman are not eaten in the UK and are exported to EU countries. An escalating dispute will see this market simply closed off, rendering any increased catch harder to sell or in search of new markets beyond Europe. A track record of militant protests and direct action by French farmers and fishermen, reluctant even to obey their own government’s rules does not bode well for a peaceful settlement.
The bigger picture
Fishing is important but it is only a very small aspect of much wider UK interests in Europe and the world. In 2019 the UK fishing industry accounted for 0.12% of GDP. Analysts estimate that If UK vessels had exclusive access to the EEZ it would amount to about an extra 650,000 tonnes of fish landed annually, worth an estimated £400M. UK boats would probably lose access to EU waters, and around 90,000 tonnes of catch worth approx £100M. Other than national pride, what is really worth sacrificing for an extra £300M a year?
The Royal Navy works very closely with European navies in the NATO context, an alliance that is critical to deterring threats from increasingly aggressive adversaries. The idea of RN warships facing off with other NATO warships would suit Mr Putin down to the ground.
Brexit is happening but there seems to be a desperate shortage of grown-ups on both sides who will work pragmatically for a settlement that in the interests of everyone, including the fishermen. Both sides have had 4 years to make progress while the EU has been flogging the deserter to encourage the others, Britain’s politicians have indulged in a shambolic circus of jingoism and virtue signalling. Ultimately the fishing dispute will only be settled around the negotiating table and not by an exchange of shots on the open seas.
Main image: HMS Tyne inspects a Belgian fishing vessel off the North coast of Cornwall, Sept 2014.