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Commercial Fishing


Fishing Centre Stage

Fishing Centre Stage – The Withdrawal Agreement and Political Statement on the UK’s future relationship with the EU has put fishing in the spotlight. The NFFO looks at what is at stake.

Independent Coastal State

When the UK leaves the EU, under international law, it will automatically assume the rights and responsibilities of an independent Coastal State. The Political Statement, agreed last weekend recognises this change in legal status, subject to a 21 month transitional period. References are made to:

  • Regulatory Autonomy
  • It is accepted that the UK would negotiate as an independent party to manage shared stocks sustainably
  • Access to fish in UK waters, or for UK vessels to fish in EU waters would be subject to negotiation

Trade and Fishing Rights

The EU27 in its original negotiating mandate, and in statements made subsequently, have said any future trade deal will be contingent on the continuation of the status quo on access rights and quota shares. The UK, on the other hand, has been equally adamant that:

  • There should be no linkage between an agreement on trade and fishing rights
  • Access to UK waters for EU fleets will not be automatic
  • Quota shares will have to change to more closely reflect the proportion of fish that are in UK waters (as the EU already recognises in its dealings with Norway)

The EU is occupying an uncomfortable position on this because there is no example of a trade deal current anywhere in the world which includes terms which require one party to grant free access to the natural resources of the other party. The EU’s position if applied to, say, a West African country, would rightly be regarded as a form of exploitative neo-colonialism.

Fishing and Politics

Fishing rights are already highly politically charged in the context of Brexit. The fishing industry sees Brexit as an opportunity to righting the wrong done when its interests were sacrificed in 1974. Fishing, perhaps easier to understand in its essentials than complex trade issues, has become a litmus test for Brexit. The parliamentary arithmetic since the last General Election has served to intensify the focus on fishing rights. With a Government that does not hold a majority in Parliament, fishing has become critical for the survival of the Government. In this context it will be important for the Government that any new fisheries agreement with the EU could not be portrayed as another sell-out. The symbolism of fishing is huge.

On the other side of the Channel, France, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Spain, stand to lose a very great deal because the CFP and the principle of equal access has worked heavily to their advantage for 45 years. Quota shares are a zero-sum game.

EU vessels catch around six times as much in UK waters as UK vessels catch in EU waters. The CFP’s quota share formula Relative Stability, agreed in 1983, enshrined many examples of extreme distortions that have worked systematically to the UK’s disadvantage for 45 years, the most extreme example being Channel cod where the UK’s share is 9%, whilst France’s is 84%). This asymmetrical and exploitative relationship is now under threat.

No Sell-Out

A crystal ball is not required to foresee that the issue of fishing rights will remain in the political and media spotlight until a new equilibrium is found. The EU will apply maximum pressure to keep the current arrangements on access and quota shares, for the simple reason that these work massively to the EU’s advantage. The only scenario in which that is likely to happen is if the UK choses to remain within the EU (and therefore the CFP) in a second referendum.

Politically, the UK Government can’t afford not to deliver on fishing. From an economic point of view both sides want and need an ambitious free trade deal. The politics however will take priority. The EU will not agree to a trade deal which gives the same benefits to a non-member. The UK has its own internal political dynamics in which fishing will remain as a visible symbol of Brexit, perhaps the only aspect of Brexit where there is utter clarity. Whatever their other differences, there is cross-party consensus that the UK fishing industry has been appallingly treated by the Common Fisheries Policy, and that leaving the EU opens the prospect of doing something different – the one area in which the UK has an unambiguously strong hand to play.

The fishing issue will not diminish in significance whilst these political dynamics are in play and whilst the UK fishing industry and its allies seek justice.

Legal Shift

Beneath the politics, there is no disguising that there has been a seismic legal shift. As the UK leaves the EU it, by default, becomes an independent coastal state. It would take a betrayal of biblical magnitude for any British government to voluntarily cede its legal rights (and the benefits to exploit the natural marine resources in its own waters, which come with those rights) by buckling to EU pressure. It did happen before. Deft manoeuvring by the EU and a UK Government desperate to join the EEC fishing, delivered an asymmetric and exploitative relationship on fishing for 45 years. The political and legal dynamics are, however, very different this time round.

The Political Statement makes provision for a deal to be struck on fishing before July 2020, in preparation for the usual autumn fisheries negotiations. Both parties are legally obliged to cooperate on the management of shared stocks. But for the UK, the status quo on access and quota shares is not an option.

What do we want?

To understand what is at stake, it is only necessary to look across the North Sea at the EU’s current relationship with Norway on fishing.

  • Norway is an independent coastal state, outside the Common Fisheries Policy
  • EU and Norway successfully cooperate on the sustainable management of shared stocks
  • Annual fisheries negotiations, within a framework agreement, determine total allowable catches, access arrangements and quota shares
  • Respective quota shares are based on an objective assessment of the resources in each other’s exclusive economic zones (zonal attachment)
  • If the annual negotiations fail to achieve agreement by the end of each year (as sometimes happens) EU vessels do not have access to Norwegian waters from 1st January and Norwegian vessels do not have access to EU waters, until a new deal is struck sometime in the New Year
  • Unutilised quotas are exchanged annually on a balanced and reciprocal basis

This is what we want. And it should flow naturally from our new legal status as we leave the EU.

Political Statement on the UK/EU’s Future Economic Partnership


73. The Parties should cooperate bilaterally and internationally to ensure fishing at sustainable levels, promote resource conservation, and foster a clean, healthy and productive marine environment, noting that the United Kingdom will be an independent coastal state.

74. While preserving regulatory autonomy, the Parties should cooperate on the development of measures for the conservation, rational management and regulation of fisheries, in a non-discriminatory manner. They will work closely with other coastal states and in international fora, including to manage shared stocks.

75.Within the context of the overall economic partnership the Parties should establish a new fisheries agreement on, inter alia, access to waters and quota shares.

76. The Parties will use their best endeavours to conclude and ratify their new fisheries agreement by 1 July 2020 in order for it to be in place in time to be used for determining fishing opportunities for the first year after the transition period.