Britain’s plan to enforce its new control of fishing waters is “amazingly complacent”, according to a former first sea lord and Royal Navy admiral, who said the three vessels used were far too few.
The government announced on Sunday that it was “taking back control” of the waters between six and 12 nautical miles from the British coast, by leaving a treaty called the London Convention. But Admiral Lord Alan West said on Monday that Britain would be a “laughing stock” if it was unable to enforce the new rules.
The number of boats boarded by the fisheries protection vessels has plummeted from 1,400 in 2011-12 to just 278 in 2016-17, according to new government figures. This occurred after the three Royal Navy vessels dedicated to fishery protection were allowed to be used for other duties after April 2013. One took an eight-month tour to the Caribbean where activities for the crew included painting children’s homes and sporting competitions, as well as training exercises.
West, now a Labour peer, challenged the environment minister John Gardiner in the House of Lords: “How [does the government] intend to police and enforce the new regulations for UK inshore fishing waters?”
Lord Gardiner said Britain had a “robust enforcement system” delivered by the Marine Management Organisation in the waters from six miles to 200 miles from the coast. “As we leave the EU we will have to review and reflect on the level of fisheries enforcement required,” he said.
West replied: “This simple sailor is absolutely stunned by the answer, which shows amazing complacency. The bottom line is we have very, very few vessels involved in this and they are not properly centrally coordinated.
“We have already seen a number of countries involved, saying to hell with what you are saying, we are coming there anyway,” West said. Denmark has said it will seek to protect its historic fishing rights, which it says stretch back to the 1400s. “We will be made a laughing stock if we apply some rules and cannot enforce them,” he said.
Gardiner said remote monitoring of vessels in British waters took place from Newcastle and said five new ships of the type used for fisheries enforcement were being built and would be used for those duties “among other things”.
Since 2013, the British-based three vessels of the Royal Navy Fishery Protection Squadron have not been exclusively used for fisheries enforcement. The Ministry of Defence said this meant “there would be less less time available for boardings”. Convictions and fines for illegal fishing as a result of boardings have also fallen sharply, from 29 in 2010-11 to six in 2016-17.
In November 2014, one of the vessels, HMS Severn, was “tasked with other high priority duties”, according to the government minister at the time. This was a tour of 29 Caribbean ports to provide “security and reassurance to the British Overseas Territories and dependencies” and to be “on standby to assist in the event of a natural disaster”.
The ship also carried out training with local fisheries enforcement agencies, got involved with the local community and conducted “a sail-past and salute to the king and queen of the Netherlands”, as part of Aruba Sail Week 2015.
The 1964 London Convention permits some foreign vessels access to British waters from six to 12 miles off the coast, where they catch about 10,000 tonnes of fish a year, about 1.5% of the total British catch.
The environment secretary, Michael Gove, said on Sunday that Britain would leave the convention: “This is an important moment as we take back control of our fishing policy. It is a historic first step towards building a new domestic fishing policy as we leave the European Union – one which leads to a more competitive, profitable and sustainable industry for the whole of the UK.”
When Britain leaves the EU it will also have control over access to its exclusive economic zone, the water and seabed stretching out to 200 miles from its coast or the median line with nearby nations.