EU fishermen have been granted the right to "plunder" UK waters of red mullet, scallops and lobster after Britain failed to set limits on the amount that can be caught in a post-Brexit agreement.
The Telegraph can reveal that, under the terms of the UK’s first annual fisheries agreement with Brussels since Brexit, more than 1,600 European boats will be allowed to catch an unlimited amount of non-quota species for the remainder of this year.
Large Dutch vessels, which have begun moving into Channel waters and use controversial high-powered fishing techniques, are expected to benefit most.
Non-quota stocks include crab, lobster, scallops and red mullet and account for almost a third of larger British vessels’ income, rising to 80 per cent for smaller craft under 10 metres.
Fishermen called the decision "utterly negligent", while environmental campaigners said they feared an impending "ecological tragedy" from overfishing as EU boats exploit the temporary relaxation of limits agreed in the Brexit trade deal.
They also questioned how the decision tallied with Boris Johnson’s environmental drive in the run-up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow later this year.
Luke Pollard, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, said: "The Government has sold out our fishers. Plundering our oceans in an uncoordinated free-for-all is the opposite of sustainable fishing."
Fears of free-for-all by EU boats
Fishermen fear a free-for-all by EU vessels will sound the death knell for smaller boats unable to compete with their larger European competitors.
David Stevens, a 13th generation fisherman from St Ives, Cornwall, told The Telegraph: "My boat is fitted with on board cameras – we fill out an electronic logbook every day at sea and declare our catches before we land.
"By contrast, over 1,600 EU boats are fishing in our waters, some right next to me, and the Government has no idea what they are catching.
"Some of these new EU boats have three times the catching power of mine. It is difficult to see how this will not have the potential to severely impact the health of these vital stocks. For the Government to allow unfettered access is utterly negligent."
Under the Brexit trade deal, British fishermen are due to receive an increased share of the fish over five years, which ministers say will be worth an additional £27 million when combined with the latest agreement.
It also specified that the EU and UK would apply annual tonnage limits on the amount of non-quota species according to historical activity by boats between 2012 and 2016. Prior to Brexit, these stocks were managed in other ways while the UK remained in the Common Fisheries Policy.
But The Telegraph has obtained a draft version of the EU-UK agreement for 2021, revealing that due to a delay in agreeing terms the two sides have "exceptionally agreed not to apply tonnage limits" for non-quota stocks in each other’s waters until next year.
Instead, they will "closely monitor and exchange" data on the amount of fish being landed in order to draw up strategies for managing these fisheries in future.
Fishermen argue that the threat to their businesses is compounded because the Marine Management Organisation, which polices the UK’s waters, is failing to carry out enough inspections of EU boats in UK waters.
Of the 118 inspections carried out by the regulator on EU boats this year, 35 sanctions have taken place for breaches of fisheries regulations.
‘Ecological tragedy’ in the making
Charles Clover, the executive director of oceans charity Blue Marine Foundation, said: "The failure of the Government to properly manage non-quota species is an ecological tragedy beginning to unfold. There are no limits on the total quantity that can be caught and no assessments of the health of stocks.
"Most people will be astounded that much of their favourite seafood including crab, lobster, whelk, cuttlefish, red mullet, gurnard, john dory and dab, comes from stocks that are not fully assessed, have no limits on the total amount that can be caught and, in some cases, are hoovered up using some of the most damaging fishing gear available."
A government spokesman said: "For 2021, the UK and EU have agreed due to the unique situation this year and the need to provide clarity to our respective industries to take a monitoring only approach to the implementation of the [Brexit deal] non-quota provisions.
"This is to provide the opportunity for the development of multi-year strategies for the conservation and management of shared non-quota species via the Specialised Committee on Fisheries."
The spokesman added that the EU and UK had agreed to share data, which they claimed would "allow us to monitor EU fishing activity for non-quota stocks in UK waters and will inform the development of multi-year strategies for the conservation and management of non-quota stocks".