Merchant Shipping Act 1988
Why was it introduced (political/sociological context)?
The Merchant Shipping Act 1988 was enacted to tackle the unfair quota hopping by foreign fishing vessels in British territorial waters that had appeared from the 1970s onwards. In 1970, before the UK joined the European Union (EU), the EU created and implemented the Common Fisheries Policy. This was to initiate a common market for fishing that all the countries could enjoy. This would mean that any Member State of the EU could enter any other EU country’s waters for fishing purposes. Although the UK was not happy with this policy in negotiation, they agreed to become part of it in 1973 when officially joining the EU.
In 1976, a further policy was made that would extend the fishing zone of each Member State to 200 nautical miles, which was a far larger extension that it had been previously. However, the EU did attempt to regulate and introduce controls on fishing soon after. This was due to growing concerns about the fish stocks and population and over fishing in some countries more than others. Changes were made to the Common Fisheries Policy, which involved assigning each Member State a quota of how many fish they could catch.
However, while the controls were aiming to achieve fairness in fishing between the Member States, as well as allowing fish populations to grow, there emerged a loophole of quota hopping. This loophole was negatively affecting British waters and the UK. Particularly in the 1980s, Spanish fisherman were entering British waters to fish and take advantage of the weak laws of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. This Act did not have strict registration requirements for fishing vessels, which meant that virtually anyone could register their boat as British and fly the flag on their ship. During this period, the Spanish simply registered their ships as British vessels, so that any of the fish that they caught on their boat in British waters would come under the British quota and not the Spanish quota; they took this fish from British waters and sold them in Spain.
Once it was realised what was going on with quota hopping, the British became increasingly unhappy about the situation that was at the country’s expense. People saw this as foreign vessels entering British waters to take advantage and use the UK quota to double fishing efforts. This meant that the Conservative Government looked for ways to mitigate this problem for a number of years. This was why the Merchant Shipping act 1988 was finally introduced.
What was the aim of the Act (legal context)?
The aim of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 was to stop foreign fishing vessels registering and entering British waters to take advantage and partake in quota hopping. The Conservative Government introduced this the new piece of legislation to reduce the impact of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy on British territorial waters and British fishing businesses.
The Merchant Shipping Act 1988 would replace the previous Merchant Shipping Act 1894. This had allowed anybody, which included foreign nationals, to register ownership of a vessel in the UK and come under the British quota outlined in the Common Fisheries Policy. The new Act would restrict registration of a UK vessel to British citizens or British-owned companies, with certain restrictions.
What main changes did it make to the law?
The shipping law in the UK and registration of fishing boats was changed dramatically by the Merchant Shipping Act 1988. Despite the previous Merchant Shipping Act 1894 legislation allowing foreign nationals to register vessels in the UK, this new Act created a new ‘qualified person’ requirement. It stated that a fishing vessel would only be classed as British if it had ‘a genuine and substantial connection’ to the UK. Only then would the ship be allowed to fish in British territorial waters and come under the fishing quota in the UK. This new approach to the law was a direct attempt to prevent quota hopping by other EU countries.
The Merchant Shipping Act 1988 outlined that to be classed as a British vessel, it must be owned by a qualified person or company. A qualified person had to be someone that was a British citizen, while a company had to be incorporated in the UK and have most of its business dealings in the country. There were strict regulations introduced to limit the number of foreign companies that could register their vessels as British only for the purpose of quota hopping and fishing. For example, the company had to be owned by 75 percent of shareholders and have directors that were classed as ‘qualified persons’. In other words, they had to be British.
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