Fishing is a controversial issue because it is one of the few negotiating red lines that both the UK and the EU share.
On the UK side, the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has been a long-running sore for Eurosceptics: they argue that the UK should have full control of its territorial waters and be able to decide for itself the access for boats coming from other countries.
As a result of leaving the EU, and therefore the CFP, one of the prizes of Brexit is more control over British waters and potentially more fishing opportunities for British boats.
From 1 January 2021, the UK will be what is sometimes termed an ‘independent coastal state’, meaning that it will be able to decide the terms of any access for foreign boats to UK waters.
“Fish is just as vexed an issue on the EU side. Continuing existing access to UK waters for EU boats is seen as vital for many businesses and communities who have historically relied on such access.”
In reality, these terms will be subject to negotiation with the EU to ensure UK boats also have access to EU waters and UK sellers continued access to the EU market. According to the UK’s own negotiating aims, it wants to have annual negotiations with the EU on mutual access, as it did previously within the EU.
Fish is just as vexed an issue on the EU side. Continuing existing access to UK waters for EU boats is seen as vital for many businesses and communities who have historically relied on such access.
The EU is worried that losing rights in British waters will have severe economic consequences for many of its coastal communities. One of their arguments is that because it was the UK, not the EU, that wanted to change the relationship, EU fishers should not suffer as a result.
After 47 years of membership, the UK and EU fishing industries are deeply integrated. EU boats fish in UK waters and vice versa (albeit EU boats rely on UK waters more than the reverse), and UK-EU trade in fish and fish products is substantial, with the UK a major exporter to a number EU countries.
In basic terms, the debate hinges on EU access to UK waters and UK access to the EU market.
What does the UK want?
The UK’s negotiating position on fish is set out in its draft Fisheries Framework Agreement. The UK wants to continue annual negotiations on mutual access to waters, and on quotas and total allowable catch. However, the UK wants to use a different method by which quotas are allocated in future, called ‘zonal attachment’.
Under the CFP, quotas are allocated to member states using a method called ‘relative stability’, which considers historical catch levels of member states for each species. Zonal attachment, by contrast, allocates quotas according to whose waters fish inhabit.
The UK argues that the EU system leads to quotas that do not reflect the amount of fish in UK waters. There are different measures that can be used under zonal attachment based either on where fish are caught, where their habitable area lies or where the stock tends to live. This can also be adjusted if fish migrate from one part of the sea to another during the year.
Another of the UK’s arguments is that zonal attachment is the system used in determining quotas between the EU and Norway (and it is also reportedly the basis for the recently signed UK-Norway fisheries agreement) and therefore serves as a precedent.
A UK Government study of the potential impact of a zonal attachment system shows that for the seven species analysed UK boats would gain between 14 and 55 percentage points of the total catch in UK waters depending on the species.
“Given the divergence between the fish caught in UK waters and the species eaten by UK consumers, access to foreign markets, especially the EU, is crucial for UK fishers.”
For saithe caught off the west of Scotland, for instance, UK quota would rise from 32% to around 87%. By contrast, for anglerfish caught in the North Sea, the UK quota would rise from 81% to 95%. For the seven species analysed, gains for UK boats would average 33 percentage points, rising from 25% to 58% of the total catch.
The EU is worried about signing up to such a system because EU fishers that have historically relied on catching certain species in UK waters could lose out. There is also a concern that trying to assess in whose waters fish live is unreliable when some species are migratory.
A longer-term concern is that some species are moving further northwards away from EU waters in the North-East Atlantic as sea temperatures rise, which could lead to gradually falling EU quotas.
What does the EU want?
Broadly speaking, the EU wants to continue with as close to current arrangements as possible. In its negotiating mandate, the EU said the objective should be ‘to uphold Union fishing activities’, including reciprocal access, quota shares, and the rules for transferring and exchanging quota between UK and EU fishers.
Any changes to quotas should be decided by mutual consent, effectively giving the EU a veto. This hoped-for continuity also implies the use of the relative stability method for deciding quota shares. The continuation of the status quo for quotas is incompatible with the UK desire to increase the share of catch for UK boats.
What fish are caught in UK waters?
The waters around the UK are a rich source of many fish species. On average, in 2012-16, some 1.3 million tonnes of fish were caught in UK waters per year. In terms of weight, 56% was caught by EU boats and 44% by UK boats.
However, in value terms, the pattern was the reverse: UK boats caught 57% compared to 43% for EU boats. This is because UK boats overall tend to catch higher-value species.
For instance, EU boats catch the vast majority of sand eels and blue whiting in UK waters, but these are some of the lowest value fish. Of the total caught in UK waters, two species account for just more than half: Atlantic herring (27%) and Atlantic mackerel (25%). The remainder of the catch is highly varied.
Over 90% of fish caught by UK boats is landed in Scotland and England. In 2015-19, on average 68% of fish by weight was landed in Scotland and 24% in England. However, by value, 63% was landed in Scotland and 29% in England.
This is because landings in England tend to be of higher value species. In 2015-19, almost a third of fish landed in England was crab and scallops, which are relatively high value. By contrast, in Scotland over 40% of the fish landed were mackerel and herring, which are more moderately priced.
How much fish are traded between the UK and the EU currently?
As with the relative macroeconomic insignificance of fish, both within the UK and the EU, fish trade accounts for a tiny proportion (0.8%) of total UK-EU trade, which amounted to £455 billion in 2019. That said, trade with the UK in fish amounts to 12% of the EU total for the sector.
What fish do the British eat? What fish is eaten in the EU?
Brits eat less fish than EU citizens on average, at 27 kilograms per year, compared to 28 kilograms in the EU. Fish makes up just 4% of the money UK consumers spend on food, compared to 6% on average across the EU.
People in the UK tend to eat only a limited number of fish species. Salmon is overwhelmingly the most popular, accounting for almost two-thirds (65%) of the total consumed by weight. Cod (12%) and haddock (7%) are the next most consumed species.
EU consumers eat a wider variety of fish, with habits varying between member states.
In Portugal, for instance, which is the highest per capita consumer of fish in the EU, at 57 kilograms per year, consumption is diverse. Gilthead seabream is the single most popular species but accounts for only 12% of the total consumed by weight, followed by mackerel (10%) and hake (8%).
In Spain, the second highest consumer of fish per capita in the EU, the most popular species are hake (13%), sardines (10%) and salmon (9%). Again, consumption is highly diversified.
In Germany, where fish consumption per capita is lower even than the UK, consumers have similar preferences to Brits with salmon (28%), cod (11%) and pollack (9%) the most popular. However, even the German market is more diversified than the UK.
Will there be a deal?
Needless to say, fishing is not just about catching fish but being able to sell it. Given the divergence between the fish caught in UK waters and the species eaten by UK consumers, access to foreign markets, especially the EU, is crucial for UK fishers.
In 2014-18, by weight just over 70% of UK fish exports went to the EU. This is equivalent to around two-thirds of the fish caught by British boats. Therefore, just as important for UK boats as being able to catch more fish in future is being able to sell it to the EU.
As part of the EU Single Market, UK fishers currently sell their fish to EU countries tariff free. After the end of transition, these terms of trade will depend on whether there is a trade agreement between the UK and the EU.
If there is not, the main species caught by UK boats in British waters – herring and mackerel – would face a tariff of 15% to be sold into the EU. This would significantly increase their price and be bad news for both UK sellers and EU consumers.
The EU position is equally difficult: their boats need access to UK waters (often, for many low-value species that UK boats are not interested in) but also access to UK fish supply. Fish caught in UK waters accounts for around 15% of EU total by weight.
But imports of UK fish are also important for the EU production and processing sector, which in many countries employs more people than fishing itself. Unlike many products, there are few alternatives for EU buyers when it comes to fish.
How will different parts of the UK be affected?
Boats from different parts of the UK will be affected differently by any changes in quotas and access to EU waters.
On average, British boats catch around 15% of their fish by weight in EU waters, but this varies from 20% among English boats to 10% for Welsh boats. Scottish and Northern Irish boats get 13% and 16% of their fish from EU waters respectively.
There is also a significant difference in the Channel Islands. Boats from Jersey catch hardly any of their fish in EU waters (just 2%) while boats from Guernsey catch almost a quarter (24%) of their fish in EU waters.
Therefore, future access to EU waters will be much more important for boats from England and Guernsey than for those from other parts of the UK.
By Matt Bevington, public policy and foreign affairs analyst, UK in a Changing Europe.