Britain is pulling out of an agreement that permits fishermen from five other countries to operate in UK waters, the first step in reasserting control over its fishing industry as it prepares to leave the European Union.

The government of Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Sunday it will trigger the two-year process of leaving the London Fisheries Convention, which allows vessels from France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands to fish between six and 12 nautical miles off the UK coastline.

Britain signed the 1964 convention before it joined the EU and would be bound by its terms after leaving the bloc - or Brexit - unless it starts to withdraw from the treaty now.

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Michael Gove, UK environment secretary, said the move will lead "to a more competitive, profitable and sustainable industry for the whole of the UK".

"We will have control, we can decide the terms of access," Gove told the BBC Andrew Marr show.

Gove, a prominent "Leave campaigner" in an EU referendum last year, also said that once Britain left the trading bloc, it would be able to extend control of its waters to 200 miles, or to the median line between Britain and France or Britain and Ireland.

He said that leaving the London Fisheries Convention meant that for the first time in more than 50 years, Britain would be able to decide who could access its waters.

"This is a historic first step towards building a new domestic fishing policy as we leave the European Union - one which leads to a more competitive, profitable and sustainable industry for the whole of the UK," he said.

The 1964 London Fisheries Convention allows vessels from France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands to fish between six and 12 nautical miles off the UK coastline [Reuters]

Resource-rich fishing grounds

According to government figures, British vessels caught 708,000 tonnes of fish in 2015, worth $1bn.

Other members of the convention landed an estimated 10,000 tonnes of fish in British waters within 12 nautical miles of the British coast.

Michael Creed, Ireland's minister for agriculture, food and the marine, said the move was "unwelcome and unhelpful", but not surprising at the start of Brexit negotiations, including the common fisheries policy.

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"The Irish fishing fleet has access to parts of the UK six-12 mile zone, as has the UK fleet to parts of the Irish zone," he said.

"These access rights were incorporated into the EU Common Fisheries Policy when we joined the EU."

The European Commission said it "took note", but also felt the convention had been superseded by EU law, the BBC reported.

Fishing rights became a hot topic during the campaign for the June 2016 Brexit referendum, with British fishermen voicing frustration over EU fishing quotas.

Leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage even led a small flotilla of fishermen up the Thames a week before the referendum, arguing Britain's fishing industry was "literally being destroyed" as a result of EU membership.

Source: News agencies