In focus: Fisheries

Nov 04, 2020

Fishing rights have caused problems in the Brexit negotiations - What’s the story?

The EU wants the status-quo, the UK wants to change everything.” The words of the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier sums up why fisheries are such a sticking point in the Brexit negotiations

The issue has been debated over the last few months with little give by either side.  Now with the

end of the transition period approaching when the UK will no longer be bound by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, it seems some compromise is needed.

What’s the issue?

The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) means the fishing fleets of each country involved have access to each other’s fishing waters, apart from the first 12 nautical miles out from the coast.  Every year, EU ministers meet for talks to decide on the volume of fish that can be caught from each species. National quotas are then arrived at using data from the 1970s.  The UK fishing industry has maintained that it got a bad deal back then and has always felt it deserved larger quotas.

Post Brexit, the UK will operate as an independent coastal state outside of the CFP, which means that it will control what’s known as an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) which expands 200 nautical miles into the North Atlantic sea from the UK’s coastline.

The EU and UK fishermen want to and need to fish in each other’s waters and need to agree how that’s done.

The dilemma

The UK wants to have annual talks with the EU on access to EU and UK waters and also on quotas. When it comes to the negotiation of quotas – the share of the agreed annual catch each country can take from the water – the UK wants them to be based on “zonal attachment”.  This means calculating the quota based on the waters from which the fish originate.  The result would be a larger catch for UK fishermen.  On the other hand, the EU wants to keep the current access EU fishermen have to British waters.  

The bountiful British waters are very important to the EU and therefore the EU would like to protect its fisheries by maintaining the status quo, thereby allowing the same level of access as there is now.  Furthermore, the EU wants to divide the amounts of fish that each country is allowed to catch so that negotiations are not needed each year, and quotas can only be changed following agreement from both the UK and EU.

What’s next?

Negotiations on this sensitive issue continue, albeit frayed. Both sides want to defend their interests, but both also need to be realistic in order to agree a deal.  Within the EU27, fishing rights are most important to the coastal EU countries such as Ireland, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and France.  For other EU countries, they don’t matter.

For the UK on the other hand, it might have control over its own waters, but most of its fish is exported to the EU.

For both countries, while fishing contributes relatively small amounts to the overall economies of the UK and EU, it does provide local employment to thousands of workers.

It was hoped agreement on this issue would be reached in July but the divisions rumble on. One thing is certain, however: a no deal on fish would be the worst possible outcome for both sides.