February 27, 2024

The UK government’s decision to set catch limits on fish stocks above those recommended by scientific advice is to be challenged in the courts by marine conservationists who accuse ministers of breaking their own post-Brexit rules.

The legal challenge, expected to start in January, will argue that the government is “illegally squandering” a public asset and running afoul of laws aimed at improving sustainable fishing.

Each year the UK, the EU and Norway negotiate catch limits for shared commercial fish species for the following year; they are advised by an independent scientific body on what level is sustainable. Ministers this month agreed for the third year in a row to set at least half of the catch limits for shared stocks above scientific advice. That means a green light for overfishing, according to the Blue Marine Foundation.

The 2024 deal, agreed by the UK, the EU and Norway, will see 750,000 tonnes of fishing opportunities, worth £970m for the British Navy.

Fisheries Minister Mark Spencer said scientific advice had informed deals that set 70 catch limits for fish stocks in the North Sea and North East Atlantic, in support of a “sustainable” and profitable fishing sector. But conservation and environmental law NGOs have criticized ministers from all the nations involved, warning that very severely depleted fish populations remain a “serious risk”.

Charles Clover, co-founder of Blue Marine, said: “How long are the British public, the fishing industry or the Treasury meant to tolerate Defra ministers routinely, blithely and unfairly breaking their own post-Brexit laws? Who will challenge them? Someone has to and we are prepared to do it in the national interest.”

Blue Marine has written to ministers that it will seek leave for a judicial review of its determination of fishing opportunities for 2024, if it is consistent with the government announcement on 8 December 2023.

When the government introduced the Fisheries Actthe first inland fisheries legislation in four decades, it said it would create a “world-class” management regime that draws on the “best available science” to ensure fish populations are healthy and sustainable.

The reality is different, say conservationists. In the first year after Brexit, more than 65% of catch limits exceeded independent scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). In the second year they were up 57%.

This year, a “preliminary estimate” by Defra found that the same number of jointly managed shares were set at or below scientific advice than last year – the third since the new regime was introduced. Among the awards were opportunities to stock that scientists think should not be caught at all, including two new at-risk species, Channel and Celtic Sea pollack and Irish sea tool.

Last year the charity ClientEarth took EU ministers to court on the 2022 catch limits in the north-east Atlantic for shared fish stocks between the EU and the UK as well as stocks in EU waters. The case is still pending.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Sustainability has been at the heart of the UK’s approach to supporting the viability of the UK fishing industry and catch limits have been set in line with obligations under the Fisheries Act 2020 and the Joint Fisheries Statement.

“During these negotiations, we insisted that decisions should be based on the best available science to protect key stocks, using evidence from Ices as the starting point.”

A European Commission spokesman said it was important to reach “balanced and responsible” agreement and that scientific advice, along with socio-economic and other evidence, was taken into account to justify catch levels “strictly limited to meet the needs of cover fisheries to continue working at all.”.

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