Michael Gove has told the Danish fishing industry that boats from EU countries will still be able to operate in UK waters after Brexit, as the UK does not have enough capacity to catch and process all its fish alone.
The comments from Gove, recounted by Danish fishing leaders after they met the environment secretary, prompted complaints from the Lib Dems and SNP that the government’s stance on the issue was confused.
In July, Gove said Britain was “taking back control” of its fisheries by departing from the EU common fisheries policy, which lets member states fish between 12 and 200 nautical miles off the UK’s coastline.
He also announced the UK’s withdrawal from the London fisheries convention, signed before the UK joined the EU, which lets vessels from the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands fish within between six and 12 nautical miles of each other’s coasts.
But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the plan had always been to allow other nations some access to UK territorial waters after Brexit, and that the extent of this could now be decided by the UK.
Gove, who was made environment secretary after June’s election, met representatives from Danish fish processing companies and the country’s fishing industry in Jutland on Monday, the Jyllands-Posten newspaper reported.
At the meeting Gove said the UK “does not have the capacity to catch and process all the fish in British waters” and thus boats from EU nations would be allowed continued access post-Brexit, the paper quoted Niels Wichmann, head of the Danish Fishermen’s Association, as saying.
“It is a logical announcement, but it is still very positive and a little surprising that it comes … so early in the negotiation process,” said Wichmann, who reportedly attended the meeting.
Wichmann said Gove did not make clear whether Danish boats would be able to keep the same quotas or would have them reduced.
Esben Sverdrup-Jensen, head of Denmark’s Fish Industries Association, told Jyllands-Posten that while the quotas remained uncertain, it was positive that the UK was “being constructive and has not slammed the door”.
The Lib Dems’ Brexit spokesman, Tom Brake, said Gove’s comments showed promises by the leave campaign about fishing were being broken.
He said: “Michael Gove chose to put stopping EU fishing in British waters front and centre of his campaign to leave the EU, yet is now telling Danish fishermen the opposite.”
The SNP said the government should clarify what was to happen. Stewart Stevenson, the party’s MP for Banff and Buchan Coast, said the government would not “stand up for rural Scotland’s interests” on the issue.
He said: “They might well be trying to keep voters and fishermen sweet at home with all sorts of promises, yet Michael Gove is jetsetting around Europe reassuring EU members that there will be nothing of the sort.”
A Defra spokeswoman said the issue was that the UK would be able to control which foreign ships fished within its territory.
“Leaving the EU means we will take back control of our territorial waters,” she said. “As we have always said, other countries will be able to access our waters – but for the first time in 50 years it will be on our terms and under our control.
“We will allocate quotas on the basis of what is scientifically sustainable, making sure we have a healthy marine environment and profitable fishing industry in the UK.”