Making social science accessible

27 Dec 2020


Contrary to many dire predictions, we finally have a Brexit trade deal, and with it an agreement on how the UK and EU will manage shared fisheries into the future.

The fishing industry has experienced an unusually high profile since the Brexit referendum, but this reached dizzy heights over the last few months of 2020, as disagreements over fishing quotas and access were said to be the final barrier to a wider agreement. So now that the deal has been landed, how does the catch measure up?

The bare bones of the deal are that there will be a five and a half year adjustment period, starting from January 2021, during which the value of the catch the UK can take in its own Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) will increase incrementally up to an average of 25%.

In monetary terms this will be worth approximately £140 million per year to the UK fishing industry by 2026.

Boris Johnson certainly wants this to look like a victory – when announcing the wider deal he wore a fish patterned tie and announced “I can assure great fish fanatics in this country that we will as a result of this deal be able to catch and eat quite prodigious quantities of extra fish.”

He also stated that the UK will be able to increase the catch in its waters from approximately half to two thirds, “after which there is no theoretical limit beyond those placed by science or conservation on the quantity of our own fish that we can fish in our waters.” As usual, it’s important to look at the detail behind the headlines and catch phrases.

First of all, the two thirds equation only includes the UK and EU, not Norway, which also has some important fisheries in UK waters. That sharing arrangement is yet to be fully negotiated, but in reality, the value of fish the UK takes in its own EEZ is unlikely to increase beyond 60%.

More importantly, the wider trade deal carries an assumption that the increase in the UK catch share will not go beyond 25% after 2026. If there is a dispute then either side can reduce reciprocal fishing access and place tariffs on fish imports and on other goods, or ultimately suspend other parts of the trade and economic partnership.

Given how hard won the wider trade deal has been, it seems very unlikely that fishing will be allowed to risk it again in the future. But as is now widely known, tariffs on UK seafood imports into Europe would hit the UK particularly hard, because the majority of UK caught seafood is exported to the EU.

It is also informative to look at where and for which species the UK catch shares will increase. One of the most widely quoted disparities in the Brexit debate was that EU vessels were allowed to catch 90% of the cod in the eastern Channel. As for a third of other shared stocks, that situation will not actually change in this agreement, but because that example is such a small fishery it was always a red herring.

The biggest increases for the UK are for stocks like hake (36%) and Norway pout (20%) in the North Sea, sprat in the English Channel (32%) and horse mackerel in the southern North Sea and Eastern channel (29%).

The increase for hake will be welcomed, because of its current prevalence in the UK section of the North Sea, but many of the other increases will only help specific vessels in certain areas.

Although the allocation of the increased UK quota is yet to be revealed, it is difficult to see how it will benefit small-scale (under 10 m) vessels operating close inshore. These boats may have a smaller catching capacity than the larger ones, but are much more numerous and have long suffered from a lack of quota.

Particularly important to them was that the deal would secure an exclusive zone for UK boats within 12 miles of shore, but foreign vessels with a track record will continue to have access to the 6 to 12 mile area under a grandfather clause.

How does the deal compare to what both sides wanted? The EU have long pushed for the status quo in exchange for tariff free trade in seafood, but softened that approach in the final negotiations to offer a 15-18% increase in catch value to the UK in UK waters over 7 to 8 years.

On the UK side there was much talk of the ‘Sea of Opportunity’ and some extravagant claims that £1.6 billion worth of fish per year should be repatriated to the UK via Brexit. Ultimately, the UK government aimed to gain 80% of the value of the EU catch in UK waters over a 3 year period.

Purely based on the maths it’s fair to say the agreement has finished much closer to the EU’s initial position than the UK’s. Although fishermen from neither side are particularly happy, most criticism is coming from the UK industry. The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations have called the deal ‘Miniscule, marginal, paltry, pathetic’ while the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation said “After all the promises given to the industry, (the deal) is hugely disappointing.”

But in the mix with all this disappointment from the UK industry, are there any positives? The first is that a deal has been achieved. Exporting seafood to the EU will not be as straightforward as before, but tariff free access is assured for now. A no deal Brexit would have been disastrous for many in the UK fishing and seafood processing industries.

The focus on UK fisheries provided by both Brexit and coronavirus should also continue to encourage more consumption of locally caught fish. Furthermore, through the new Fisheries Act and more control over its waters, the UK now has the opportunity to reach for its aspiration to become a world leader in fisheries management.

The recognition that UK fishing activities should bring national social and economic benefits, and that fisheries should adapt in the face of climate change, are particularly welcome inclusions.

The new trade agreement between the UK and EU also commits both parties to ensure that fishing activities for shared stocks are environmentally sustainable in the long term, and to restore populations of harvested species above levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield (MSY). MSY is controversial in some circles, particularly for mixed fisheries, but these commitments are actually more ambitious those contained in the Fisheries Act.

So will the new UK-EU trade and cooperation agreement finally calm the seas in North East Atlantic fisheries? I doubt it. Many underlying issues remain unsolved, and without a zonal attachment approach to allocating catch shares, the effect of climate change on fish stock distribution will continue to wreak havoc on arrangements. But for now at least, we know the direction in which the ship is sailing.

Dr Bryce Stewart, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Environment and Geography, University of York.


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