Debate Intensifies over Brexit Implications for EU Common Fisheries Policy

15 March 2018

As Brexit negotiations continue on arrangements for when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the future implications for both EU and UK fisheries policy remain in question, with each side putting forward their expectations going forward. 

Questions remain on how management of shared fisheries resources will be decided in the UK’s future arrangements with EU member states and other countries, how trade in fisheries products between the UK and EU might be affected, and what the final result will mean for the EU given its role as one of the world’s largest markets for fish products. 

Call for independent British fisheries policy

In a joint statement last week, UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Michael Gove and Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson called for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). 

The two officials teamed up to demonstrate support for the British fishing industry, saying, that “it is vital that we regain control over our own fisheries management,” and suggested that this take effect from March 2019. That date marks the expected UK exit from the EU, as well as the start of the “transition period” before a new trade deal takes effect. 

“We want to use the opportunity of Brexit to secure a sustainable marine environment for the next generation. As proud Scots, we feel a particular debt to fishing communities who are looking to government to deliver a better deal for them,” the two officials said. 

They also suggested that the UK should be able to negotiate on its own behalf when it comes to access to fisheries resources, stating that there must be a “fairer allocation for the British fleet in our own waters.” They further noted that UK Prime Minister Theresa May has publicly supported the March 2019 timeframe for exiting the Common Fisheries Policy. 

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation welcomed the commitment by Davidson and Gove, having previously set industry red lines for the fisheries negotiation that include the UK’s immediate exit from the CFP. Without it, they warn, the UK could be subject to the CFP’s requirements without input into its terms.

Reciprocal access in future FTA?

The statement came days after the UK Chancellor Philip Hammond appeared to suggest that reciprocal access to UK and EU waters could be up for negotiation as part of a broader UK-EU trade deal. 

Speaking at HSBC’s London headquarters, the Chancellor said that London would be willing to negotiate with Brussels on “the appropriate arrangements for reciprocal access for our fishermen to EU waters and for EU fishermen to our waters.” 

“We would have to negotiate the basis on which such an arrangement could be fair and appropriate for us,” he added. 

The EU solidified its position on the issue with the release of draft guidelines on that future agreement with the UK. In discussing  the guidelines, European Council President Donald Tusk said last week that the two sides should aim for a trade deal with full sectoral coverage, zero tariffs on goods, and provisions on services trade. 

He also called for keeping in place “reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources.” The draft EU guidelines are set for adoption at a Council meeting later this month. 

UK’s role in Common Fisheries Policy

The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, first introduced in the 1970s, currently governs the access to and management of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of all EU member countries. 

In seeking to promote the sustainability of its own EU stocks, the CFP dictates that the EU Council of Ministers determine the annual Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for each stock based on scientific advice from select advisory bodies. Country-specific proportions of those TACs are then allocated based on historical national quotas, as agreed by member states when quotas were first introduced for each stock. 

Importantly, the CFP guarantees equal access for all EU fleets to all EU waters, a crucial point for UK fishermen in the Brexit negotiations. In 2015, 58 percent of fish and shellfish caught in the UK’s EEZ was landed by boats from other EU countries, while only 16 percent of all fish and shellfish landed by the UK vessels was caught in the EEZs of other EU countries, according to a UK government report

Currently, the British fishing industry relies heavily on exports to the rest of the EU, sending salmon, mackerel, and herring to France, the Netherlands and Spain. At the same time, the UK remains a net importer of fish, with significant imports of cod, haddock, tuna, and shrimp coming from Germany, Denmark, and Spain, among others. These transactions currently enjoy zero tariffs under EU law.

The relative economic importance of the UK’s fishing industry has been steadily declining since the mid-1900s. According to the UK government’s annual report on sea fisheries statistics, the number of fishermen has dropping from nearly 50,000 in 1938 to less than 12,000 as of 2016. Those fishermen that remain are largely divided between England and Wales at 52 percent and Scotland at 41 percent, with Northern Ireland playing a small role. 

Nonetheless, the UK’s fleet is the second largest in the EU in terms of gross tonnage, and has the second-largest total catch, behind only Spain. 

The CFP also has an international component, with the bloc working together on subjects such as how much fish and fish products from outside the bloc should qualify for import under tariff-rate quotas. The bloc works with UN and other international bodies which deal with fisheries management. 

EU: Growing fish crisis in the Western Mediterranean

Meanwhile, the EU is also attempting to address a growing crisis involving Western Mediterranean fish stocks. A 2017 study of the Mediterranean Sea ecosystem concluded that fish stocks were declining at a rapid pace, with 93 percent of assessed fish stocks categorised as overexploited. Thirty-four percent of the total population loss has occurred in the past 50 years, pointing to a need for better management of the collective resource. 

In response, the EU has announced a plan spanning several years to improve regulation of Western Mediterranean fishing and return fish stocks to a sustainable level. The plan, released last week, includes proposals for a consolidation of fisheries management into one regulatory framework, a temporary reduction of fishing activities, and a seasonal restriction on trawling.

EU Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs, and Fisheries Karmenu Vella noted that the proposal “is a direct follow-up to the MedFish4Ever Declaration from 2017.” That declaration and related campaign involves a commitment to addressing the problems that the Mediterranean’s fish stocks face. 

Vella added that the plain “aims to reach a healthy level of fish stocks needed to prevent a loss of jobs and to sustain important economic sectors that depend on fisheries,” and that “it brings us one step closer to making Mediterranean fisheries more sustainable.” 

ICTSD reporting; “Gore and Davidson in fisheries control call,” BBC, 11 March 2018; “EU fishermen could still have access to British waters after Brexit Chancellor Philip Hammond admits,” MIRROR, 7 March 2018; “EU to hold Britain to fishing quotas during Brexit transition,” THE GUARDIAN, 11 January 2018.

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