Troubled waters? Negotiating fish quotas post-Brexit

Over 90% of UK fishers said that they would vote for Brexit.

Some believed that post-Brexit they would be able to catch more fish.

However, such an outcome will probably depend on the relative strength of the UK’s bargaining position – and it is not clear how strong our position is on this or how it might be affected by the wider Brexit negotiations.

Taking back control of UK seas

Under international law, which was agreed after the UK had joined the EEC, countries generally have control over fisheries resources in their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) up to 200 nautical miles from their coast (or up to the mid-point between two countries).

However, EU Member States agreed to share access to fishing grounds from 12-200 miles from their coasts, partly in order to avoid conflict over fishing rights.

This means that UK fishers have access to waters that might otherwise be off-limits to them, and EU fishers have access to UK waters.

Post-Brexit the UK would presumably assume control of fisheries to the 200 mile limit.

And some believe UK fish quotas could be increased as a result.

British fish for British fishers?

However, increasing UK fish quotas may not be plain sailing.

Many fish stocks cannot be considered entirely ‘British’. They move considerable distances over the year, spending parts of their time in waters that will be outside the UK’s future jurisdiction.

As a result a new agreement with the EU will be needed on how to share these stocks. The agreement between Norway and the EU does this through ‘zonal attachment’. Quotas are based on the amount of time a stock remains in a particular location.

One challenge with this approach is that fish distributions change over time. This means that it may be difficult to agree what a ‘fair’ British catch might be, and a ‘fair’ catch may change from year to year. This could lead to disagreements with the EU and other countries about UK quotas.

Brexit negotiations

There will also be a political and economic calculation to be made.

The UK might be able to restrict access to UK waters or take a higher share of the fish quotas. However, such changes could have a severely detrimental impact on some EU fishers. It is therefore likely that the EU will wish to protect these interests in the Brexit negotiations.

What if agreement cannot be reached on quotas?

If post-Brexit Britain was unhappy with the outcome of any fish quota negotiations, it could walk-away from talks and, depending on the terms of exit, unilaterally set its own quotas. Such an outcome, if neither side backed-down, could lead to overfishing and damage to fish stocks.

Disagreements such as these in the past have led to so-called ‘fish wars’. These have happened when countries have unilaterally increased their share of fish stocks where they believe their allocation is unfair.

For example, in 2013 the Faroes argued that the scientific evidence showed that herring distribution had changed and that the fish was spending much more of its time in Faroese waters than in the past. The Faroes unilaterally set its quota at 100,000 tonnes. The EU responded with trade sanctions, a ban on Faeroese herring imports and it prohibited the entry into European ports of Faroese fishing vessels.

It is not clear whether the EU would take such a hard-line approach against the UK in such a fisheries disagreement, given the vastly different economic and political context. However, fish trade sanctions could be a concern for the UK fisheries sector. Around 20% of the fish caught by the UK fleet is landed in other Member States, and the UK exports around 80% of its wild-caught seafood, with four of the top five destinations being European countries.

Will UK fishers get more fish?

Existing fisheries agreements between the EU and other countries, such as Norway, may give some clues as to what a post-Brexit fisheries agreement may look like.

It is possible that the UK will be able to negotiate an increased share of the quota based more closely on the actual distribution of fish in UK waters and some preferential access to the EU market for fisheries products, in exchange for access to the UK’s EEZ for EU fishers.

Indeed, some are confident about the UK’s ability to negotiate a better deal. They believe that the extent of UK fish resources, and the reliance of some EU fishers on it, gives the UK a strong bargaining position. They also point to the strong demand from the EU for UK fish products.

However, it seems likely that the EU will take a tough stance on any move to reduce quota for EU fishers or restrictions on access to the UK’s EEZ.

It is not clear the extent to which negotiations on fisheries could be influenced by the broader Brexit negotiations – and whether the potential political and economic cost of renegotiating an increase in UK quotas will be seen as justified when considered as part of the broader negotiations.

It therefore remains to be seen whether the UK will be able to negotiate a higher share of fish quotas. It also seems possible that seeking an increase in UK quota may come at a cost. It is not clear what that cost might be, and who would pay it.

The House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee is conducting a short inquiry exploring the future of fisheries and Brexit. Evidence from a number of stakeholders, including the Fisheries Minister George Eustace MP, can be found on the Committee’s website.

You can also find more analysis on these issues in our briefing Brexit: What next for UK fisheries?

Picture Credit: Boats at Brixham, Devon by Mark A Coleman; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)