Brexit and fishing rights: Key questions answered

Fishing is an industry responsible for 12,000 jobs on around 6,000 vessels in the UK – and one massive Brexit headache.

London and Brussels have found control of the seas a perennial sticking point in trade negotiations, with supporters of Leave saying Brexit should mean Britain getting its country, and its fish, back.

The British position is that, as an independent coastal state, the UK should be able to prioritise its own boats.

However, the UK exported 333 thousand tonnes of fish to members of the EU in 2019 with a value of £1.34 billion, according to figures from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), and continued access to the markets is key for the industry.

What is the history of the issue?

The UK Government’s allowing of other countries to fish in its waters predates its entry into the European Union.

The London Fisheries Convention, signed in 1964, allowed vessels from France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands to fish inside the UK’s 12 nautical mile territorial zone up to six miles from the coast, and for British fleets to fish to the same distance off the coastlines of other signatories.

Britain withdrew from the convention in 2017, which was largely superseded by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which the UK will also leave on December 31 at the end of the Brexit transition period.

What is the situation now?

According to the EU, the CFP “gives all European fishing fleets equal access to EU waters and fishing grounds and allows fishermen to compete fairly”.

In practice, this means all EU countries can fish within 12 nautical miles of the UK coast and vice versa.

Criticism of the equal access agreement usually focuses on the argument that the UK has a relatively large fishing zone compared to many EU members and, as a result, EU fishermen benefit more from access to UK waters than the other way around.

What are the statistics?

Cod and haddock are largely imported into the UK
Cod and haddock are largely imported into the UK (Niall Carson/PA)

An October report from the MMO said between 2012 and 2016, EU-27 vessels landed an estimated average of 706,000 tonnes of fish from UK waters with a value of £493 million per year, representing 27% of their total by weight.

In comparison, UK vessels landed 94,000 tonnes from EU-27 waters, equating to just 14% of its total haul.

However, chip shop staples of cod and haddock are largely imported from EU-27 states, at 106,000 tonnes and 51,000 tonnes in 2019 respectively, and the UK is a net exporter of mackerel and herring, selling 62,000 tonnes and 35,000 tonnes to the EU last year.

What is the situation with quotas?

The CFP sets quotas of how many of each fish species can be caught in a certain area to ensure the industry is sustainable.

Each country is annually given a quota based on the total available for each species, with each country’s limit based on historical fishing patterns of each country which, it is argued, are unfavourable to the UK.

What could happen next?

POLITICS Brexit
UK transition period (PA Graphics)

The UK will, either with or without a deal, become an independent coastal state in the new year. Without an agreement, it will have control of a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), as conferred by the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In its February Future Relationship with the EU document, the UK Government said “future fishing opportunities should be based on the principle of zonal attachment”, as is the case with the EU’s agreement with Norway.

There, the EU and Norwegian governments jointly agree quotas to manage stocks and an exchange of fishing rights.

How could the impasse be overcome?

Reports suggest UK negotiators are proposing removing pelagic fish – the likes of mackerel and whiting – from the fisheries aspect of the negotiations in a bid to break the deadlock.

How has politics played a part?

French president Emmanuel Macron's stance on fishing may be due to the 2022 election
French president Emmanuel Macron’s stance on fishing may be due to the 2022 election (Justin Tallis/PA)

Fishing, although a small fraction of national industry, is key to many of the places where it takes place.

France’s Emmanuel Macron has warned his country will veto any Brexit deal, suggesting anxiety over what Michel Barnier is preparing to give up in his determination to secure an agreement.

Mr Macron has maintained a hard line on fishing, with his country set to go to the polls in 2022. Regions including Brittany and Normandy – key fishing areas – are likely to be vital in the race for the presidency.

Similarly, on the UK side, an independent fisheries policy is seen as part of “taking back control”, with then fisheries minister George Eustice saying in January: “For many people in coastal communities, leaving the Common Fisheries Policy is at the heart of getting Brexit done.”

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