Taking back control of fisheries became one of the totemic issues uniting supporters of the campaign for the UK to leave the EU. The issue will again be high on the agenda when the negotiations over the future relationship between the UK and EU are able to take place.
This will turn on the principles of freedom of access to territorial waters, and the rules governing how the EU’s total allowable catch is divided between member states. Both are enshrined in the EU Common Fisheries Policy, and the fishing quotas have been fixed since 1983. Referred to as “relative stability”, these permit a disproportionate amount of fishing in UK waters. Vessels from other EU member states are estimated to catch eight times as much fish from UK waters as the other way around.
The UK government has indicated that getting a better deal for British fishers will be a red line in the negotiations. In particular, it proposes that access to UK waters should be licensed and quota shares should be negotiated annually based on “zonal attachments”, which are the proportions of international fish stocks that reside the 200-mile area off the coast of a country, known as the exclusive economic zone.
The trouble is that continued access to the UK’s waters and maintaining existing quota shares are red lines for the EU. It seems likely that Brussels will seek to make a tariff-free trade agreement conditional on these arrangements. In addition, the negotiations will eventually have to involve Norway, which also has a legitimate claim on North Sea stocks and relies heavily on access to UK waters for catches of some species.
With such different positions, there is a reasonable prospect that the two sides will not be able to reach agreement on a framework for reallocating the quotas – at least not to the satisfaction of the UK fishing industry. This is supposed to be achieved by July 2020, the timescale set out in the UK withdrawal agreement, though that date is likely to slide due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The worst-case scenario would be that the parties unilaterally set their own quotas for what they consider to be their fair share of each fish stock, and that in total these exceed the sustainable catch limit recommended by scientists. The University of Strathclyde conducted a modelling study to assess the ecological consequences of such an eventuality, using the North Sea as a case study.