The UK will be a “laughing stock” in Europe if it cannot police its fishing waters after Brexit, former First Sea Lord Admiral Lord West has said.
He claimed there were few vessels to enforce new regulations for UK inshore fishing waters after it leaves the EU.
And the ex-Falklands veteran, who was once a Labour security minister, said he was “stunned” at the government’s “amazing complacency” over the issue.
But minister Lord Gardiner insisted a vessel monitoring system was in place.
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Lord West raised the issue just days after the government announced it is to withdraw from the London Fisheries Convention – the deal which allows foreign fisherman access to British waters.
Lord Gardiner, a rural affairs minister, said the Marine Management Organisation would supervise the UK’s “exclusive economic zone”, which stretches from six to 200 nautical miles – while the Association of Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities would cover up to six nautical miles.
But he added that as the UK leaves the EU a review will be needed to reflect on the level of fisheries enforcement required.
That response prompted Lord West to say: “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. They are not properly centrally coordinated. We’ve already seen a number of the countries involved saying ‘well to hell with what you’re saying, we’re coming there anyway’.
“We will be made a laughing stock if we apply some rules and cannot enforce them.”
Lord West urged ministers to establish “a centralised command system to actually control the various assets we have”, adding that “far too few of them seem to be able to focus on things like someone fishing illegally in the six to 12 mile zones”.
He said more ships and boats needed to be built “to ensure we can actually enforce it”.
The minister said he would like Lord West, who served in the Royal Navy between 1965 and 2006, to go with him to Newcastle to see a new digital vessel monitoring system that can pinpoint “every vessel that’s at sea within our waters”.
He said there were three offshore patrol vessels in operation, with a further five new river offshore patrol vessels being built that will be used for fisheries protection.
But Labour’s rural affairs spokeswoman Baroness Jones of Whitchurch argued that “fish stocks can’t be managed unilaterally”, adding “there has to be some cooperation with neighbouring countries”.
“Fish shoals can sometimes move for hundreds of miles, and indeed our own fishermen fish up to the north of Russia and southern Portugal,” she said.
“There’s no point in making a unilateral declaration.”
But Lord Gardiner said not only would the government be negotiating “with our partners and friends in Europe so we have a sustainable fishing industry” but post-Brexit the UK will “have the ability to decide who fishes in our waters”.
He said the chief executive of National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations had welcomed the UK’s decision to give notice to the London Fisheries Convention as “an important part of establishing the UK as an independent coastal state with sovereignty over its own exclusive economic zone”.
He said fishing is worth £1.3bn to the UK economy, employs 34,600 people, has 6,000 fishing vessels and lands 708 tonnes of fish each year worth £775m.
The government would be “very conscious” of the interests of the coastal and fishing communities of the UK, he added.