NEF Blog: Untangling UK and EU fisheries: Is it possible? Is it desirable?

Griffin Carpenter writes in his New Economics Foundation (NEF) Blog, 26th July 2016: The EU’s track record turning around fisheries management, benefiting UK communities, fishers and the marine environment, did not get the airtime it deserved throughout the referendum debate. The key question now is whether we can continue to build on these achievements post-Brexit

Photo credit: Geraint Rowland

Photo credit: Geraint Rowland

There must be sustainable limits on fishing.

Fishing quotas must continue even if UK fisheries are entirely separated from the EU. Quota management — or limits on the amount of fish that can be caught — have helped stocks recover to sustainable levels across the world and most stocks in EU waters are now growing.

Common resources, like shared fish stocks, risk overexploitation when individual nations or fishers are left to pursue their own self-interests. A well-designed management system is required to prevent individuals benefiting at the expense of the commons.

The EU has proved an effective means of agreeing sustainable fishing limits between member states. But quota negotiations between the EU and non-EU countries — like Iceland, Norway and the Faroes — has presented far more of a challenge.

Non-EU countries benefit from exclusive access to fish stocks where political and biological areas are naturally aligned – no negotiations required. However, when fish stocks are shared across political lines, agreeing on a quota limit has proven unsuccessful as these countries can simply leave the negotiation table if they don’t like the outcome and set their own preferred limit.

Our research has shown that quota limits set outside of the EU often exceed scientific advice by a greater amount than quotas set within the EU.  Post-Brexit this is a real worry because nearly all UK fish stocks are shared with other EU members. Each additional quota the UK must now negotiate with the EU increases the chances of negotiations breaking down.

New sharing of quota could have some give and take.

Evidence on the good-management of common resources suggests that quota limits between the EU and the UK would be best served by stable, relative shares, fixed for a substantial period of time. However, post-Brexit, there is a strong argument for revisiting the current share allocation — but reopening the debate could be tricky.

Currently, all member states complain about their relative shares. There shares use a reference period of 1973–78, which is becoming less relevant because of pressures created by the new ban on discarding fish, changing fish movements due to climate change, and countries specialising in different fishing techniques and species.

Under current circumstances, renegotiating shares that are mutually beneficial might be possible, but the risk is that no minister will want to say they “lost” under a new system of relative stability. Norwegian officials have already warned the UK not to expect a better quota deal post-Brexit.

If the UK leaves Europe, should we also separate EU-UK waters? The answer to this almost certainly no — separating waters is not fully possible due to pre-EU legal agreements, nor is separating waters desired by the industry as 17% of UK catches are in non-UK EU waters and 19% of UK catches go to non-UK EU ports.

But there’s also a real political argument to keeping waters shared. The EU fisheries trade is highly mixed, with 70% of UK landings exported to the EU. Reaching agreement to trade with the single market is key for the survival of UK fisheries, and it’s likely that access to British waters will have to be offered-up in exchange. Even fish-focused Greenland accepted some trade-offs between access to their waters and access to the European market when they left the EU.

It’s essential that the UK will continue to abide by, or replicate much of the existing EU legislation that has made leaps in protecting European fisheries and the marine environment. Although the contentious discard ban will be a focus for the industry, it’s likely the ban will remain in some form. However, as new policy takes time, the EU discard ban may be fully implemented before new UK policy in this area takes shape.

Often overlooked by Brexit-ers, is that fisheries management by the UK government will be overburdened and slow to make change. In fact, Defra and its Marine Management Organisation have seen some of the largest budget cuts in recent years. Certainly there is a lesson from Brexit about the importance of communities and stakeholders in decision-making — a lesson that UK policymakers would be wise to learn.

As with many areas of the UK’s economy, the dangers of Brexit are very real for the fishing industry. Fisheries came under EU management in the first place as sovereignty over mobile fish stocks made little sense and failed to generate sustainable industry. Post-Brexit, a close collaboration between the EU and the UK — where many of the current structures and policies are replicated — is needed to ensure the UK continues to build on the positive progress that we’ve already made.

Source: NEF, 26th July 2016. For further details, see

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