Brexit: fisheries Contents

Chapter 2: Background and context

Fishing in the United Kingdom

8.Though the fishing industry is modest in size, if measured in economic output—in 2014 the fishing industry employed 11,845 fishers in the UK1 and contributed some £426 million to GDP,2 or less than half a percent of UK GDP3—fisheries have a much broader cultural, social and historic value. Fisheries are also crucial to the prosperity of many coastal communities across the United Kingdom. Despite fisheries’ prominent role in the Brexit campaign, there are widespread concerns that fisheries will be pushed aside in the negotiations due to this relative economic insignificance.4

9.Fisheries management is a devolved matter, and the Devolved Administrations manage vastly different industries: the Scottish fishing fleet has fewer but larger vessels and lands the most fish in terms of volume as well as value,5 whereas England, Wales and Northern Ireland have more fishers and vessels.6

The ‘tragedy of the commons’

10.Fish are a vulnerable resource, prone to over-exploitation. They know nothing of political borders and many species move freely between national territorial waters throughout their life cycles.

Box 1: Tragedy of the commons

Where a resource is accessible to anyone and competitive in consumption, meaning that what is used by one person cannot be used by anyone else, it is rational for each consumer to consume as large a share of the resource as they can, without regard for the consequences of everyone acting in the same manner. This is known as ‘the tragedy of the commons’ and leads to over-exploitation.

Source: European Union Committee, The progress of the Common Fisheries Policy (21st Report, Session 2007–08, HL Paper 146)

11.In the absence of co-operative management of stocks that are shared by two or more countries, fish become vulnerable to over-exploitation, as the historic cod and mackerel ‘wars’ illustrate.7 Such over-exploitation, Dr Thomas Appleby, Associate Professor at the University of the West of England, told us, involves “stealing fish from the adjacent coastal state or the next generation.”8 He concluded that “Co-ordination and a shared approach is the only tenable way to manage the resource to avert a ‘tragedy of the commons’”. The transboundary nature of fish also led the Government’s 2014 Balance of Competences Review to conclude that the majority of respondents supported some form of supranational fisheries management.9

12.In our 2008 report The progress of the Common Fisheries Policy we noted that fisheries were often used to illustrate the ‘tragedy of the commons’, for good reason, in that they constitute a mobile, public and renewable natural resource, which can be accessed by many and consumed only once. We concluded that the fundamental challenge for fisheries management was to prevent this phenomenon from taking its natural course. This challenge will remain even after the UK leaves the EU.10

The Common Fisheries Policy

13.The United Kingdom’s approach to managing fisheries is largely determined by the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which was developed during the 1970s and early 1980s.11 The objective of the CFP is to ensure that fishing is “environmentally, economically and socially sustainable”, and to harmonise competition between fishers in the EU.12

14.The CFP manages fisheries in Member States through measures that control how many fish can be harvested each year (quotas), and through technical Regulations on, for instance, gear types. The CFP also provides some structural funding to fishing communities and fishers,13 regulates marketing standards for fish products and autonomous tariff quotas for fish imports.14

Total Allowable Catches and quotas

15.Many commercial fish species are mobile demersal species that move in and out of national waters (such as plaice, cod, sole and haddock), or migratory pelagic species (such as herring and mackerel) that migrate over large distances.15 Mobile and migratory species often have a number of stock units that equate with the management units used in European fisheries managements.16 These stocks are typically managed using catch limitations in the form of Total Allowable Catches (TACs) and quotas.

Box 2: Total Allowable Catches (TACs)

Total Allowable Catches (TACs) are catch limits that denote the volume of fish that may be caught, and should reflect the volume of fish that can be taken without undermining the sustainability of that stock. Not all fish are managed through TACs, though most commercial species are.

In the EU, Member States collectively agree TACs for most commercial fish stocks. Every year the European Commission proposes a TAC for these commercial species for each area within the EU zone. The proposal is based on scientific advice from the independent International Council on the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and the EU Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF).

Scientists provide an assessment of the health and state of a given fish stock. Then, Member States agree what proportion of the stock can be exploited that year, bearing in mind that the TAC should enable fishing at a level that can produce the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for harvested stocks by 2020.17

Source: European Commission, TACs and quotas: [accessed 7 December 2016]

16.Once agreed, the TACs are divided among Member States in the form of national quotas. This is done on the basis of the ‘relative stability’ allocation key, which grants EU countries a fixed percentage of quotas for each of the fish stocks in question. For example, in 2015 the UK was allocated quotas amounting to 28,576 tonnes of North Sea haddock (equal to 84% of the EU quota) and 34,066 tonnes of North Sea plaice (equal to 28% of the EU quota).18

Box 3: Relative stability

Relative stability is an allocation key used to share out fishing opportunities between Member States. It was established in 1983 on the basis of historic catches, the loss of opportunities for some Member States as a result of the general extension of 200 nautical mile limits in 1976; and the need to protect particular regions where local populations were especially reliant on the fishing industry. The relative stability share has remained constant over time.

Source: HM Government, Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union: Fisheries report, p 14

17.Each Member State must allocate the quotas that it receives to fishers in its country using transparent and objective criteria. The current method of allocating quotas within the UK is thus a national competence.19 It has been criticised for disadvantaging smaller vessels.20

Box 4: Maximum Sustainable Yield21

Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) is the largest average catch (or yield) that can continuously be taken from a stock under existing environmental conditions without decreasing the stock’s ability to yield fish in future years. This is determined by calculating the population weight or biomass that is added every year, and then deducting its natural mortality.

When stocks are overfished advice will be given to bring them to fishing mortality levels that correspond with MSY. This results in a reduction in catch in the short-term with the expectation that catch will increase in the longer-term.

The ICES MSY approach is based on a long-term strategy whereby catch rates are fixed, enabling fish stocks to reproduce so that exploitation can occur in sustainable economic, environmental and social conditions.

Source: Seafish, Industry guidance note: Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) (March 2011): [accessed 7 December 2016]

18.For stocks that are shared22 and jointly managed with non-EU countries, the TACs are agreed with those (groups of) countries bilaterally or in coastal state negotiations, often through Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs).23 The European Commission negotiates the TACs, the proportion of the TAC that the parties receive and mutual access to fishing in EU and third party waters on behalf of Member States.24

19.In order to harmonise competition between fishers in the EU, the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of all Member States are considered one joint EU zone, also known as ‘EU waters’. The CFP regulates the fishing activities within the EU zone, though Member States have retained competence over the regulation of fishing activities in inshore waters (defined as the 0–12 nautical mile zone off the baseline of the coast). The 0–6 nautical mile limit is preserved for domestic fishing activities, whereas some Member States have historic rights to fish in the 6–12 nautical mile zone in other EU countries.25

Box 5: Exclusive Economic Zone

The state has the right to establish a territorial sea up to a limit of 12 nautical miles measured from the baseline. The EEZ is an area of sea beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea that extends up to 200 nautical miles from a country’s coast. Where the EEZs of two adjacent countries overlap, a median line is defined equidistant from the two countries’ coastlines to separate their respective EEZs. Within the EEZ a coastal state has the sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the living natural resources.

Source: United Nations, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 10 December 1982: [accessed 5 December 2016]

Figure 1: Map of the UK EEZ26

Map of the UK EEZ

Based on Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Map showing relationship between different boundaries used under national and international obligations at a UK scale (2014): [accessed 2 December 2016]

20.Fishers registered in any Member State enjoy equal access to fishing in the 12–200 nautical miles of the EU zone.27 However, as outlined above, most commercially-fished stocks in EU waters are regulated through quotas that determine which quantities of a given fish stock a vessel may catch each year.

An unpopular policy

21.The CFP has historically been criticised for mismanaging stocks and incentivising overfishing.28 Barrie Deas, Chief Executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said that the CFP had not “covered itself in glory over its history”,29 while Bertie Armstrong, Chief Executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, called it “unfit for purpose”.30

22.Fisheries featured prominently in the Leave campaign leading up to the referendum. Many within the industry feel that, thanks to the principle of equal access, fisheries were “sold down the river” when the UK acceded to the European Economic Community.31 Fisheries has therefore been highlighted as a policy area where the UK has much to gain from leaving the EU. Fishing for Leave, a campaign group that campaigned actively for leaving the EU, told us: “It is CRITICAL that for either political convenience or a minority of industry interest that the CFP is not replicated into British law.”32

23.In the years since UK accession the CFP has undergone substantial reform, not least thanks to the continued efforts of successive UK Governments.33 Key elements of the reform, some of which are still being implemented, were a stronger commitment to MSY; the introduction of a ‘landing obligation’ to eliminate discarding of fish at sea; and regionalisation of governance enabling Member States that share fisheries at a sea basin level to agree and enact regional decisions in EU or national law. Regionalised strategies for fisheries management are increasingly implemented through multi-annual plans (MAPs), which set regional targets and conservation measures for single or mixed species in areas such as the North Sea. The Government broadly supports this approach.34

Brexit and the CFP

24.Withdrawing from the EU will inevitably mean withdrawing from the Common Fisheries Policy.35 To many in the fishing industry Brexit is therefore a “sea of opportunities”.36 We heard that Brexit was an opportunity for the UK to adopt a new fisheries management regime, tailored to UK conditions.37 We also heard that by revoking the principles of equal access and relative stability, fishing opportunities could be increased.38

25.Yet fisheries are also a highly complicated policy area, not least in the light of Brexit. The majority of legislation regulating fishing activity in what will be UK waters originates from the EU, and must either be replaced or preserved before withdrawal from the EU takes effect in order to prevent what Richard Barnes, Professor of Law at the University of Hull, referred to as a “regulatory deficit”.39 His concern was shared by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) and Dr Appleby.40 Prime Minister Theresa May MP has announced that the Government will introduce a Great Repeal Bill that will carry over existing EU law into domestic law until such a point in time where it can be replaced with domestic legislation. It is possible that such a Bill could preserve many of the Regulations that manage fishing activities in what will be the UK EEZ, thereby minimising the risk of a regulatory deficit.

26.However, other elements of the CFP do not lend themselves to a Great Repeal Bill approach: when the UK leaves the EU, it will no longer take part in Council negotiations or the annual setting of TACs for shared stocks. The UK will also cease to be included in the quotas and mutual access agreements the European Commission negotiates on behalf Member States with third parties. Without this framework for co-operation, stocks that are shared between the UK and the EU risk becoming over-exploited.

1 Marine Management Organisation, UK Sea Fisheries Statistics 2014 (2015), p 1:
[accessed 7 December 2016]

2 House of Commons Library, Brexit: What next for UK fisheries?, Briefing Paper CBP7669, 27 July 2016

3 Written evidence from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) (FBR0007)

4 Written evidence from the Angling Trust (FBR0013), Fishing for Leave (FBR0002) and Dr Thomas Appleby (FBR0012); Q 14 (Bertie Armstrong)

5 Written evidence from Fergus Ewing MSP (FBR0011)

6 Q 13 (Barrie Deas)

7 HM Government, Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union: Fisheries report (Summer 2014), p 14: [accessed 7 December 2016]

8 Written evidence from Dr Thomas Appleby (FBR0012)

9 HM Government, Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union: Fisheries report

10 European Union Select Committee, The Progress of the Common Fisheries Policy (21st Report, Session 2007–08, HL Paper 146)

11 HM Government, Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union: Fisheries report

12 Article 2 of the CFP states that “the CFP shall apply the precautionary approach to fisheries management, and shall aim to ensure that exploitation of living marine biological resources restores and maintains populations of harvested species above levels which can produce the maximum sustainable yield (MSY)”.

13 In 2016, the UK was allocated €243 million from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. European Commission, ‘European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMMF)’: [accessed 7 December 2016]

14 European Commission, ‘The Common Fisheries Policy’: [accessed
7 December 2016]

15 Written evidence from Defra (FBR0001)

16 The fish stocks are managed in accordance with scientific advice from the International Council on the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) which divides European seas into so-called ICES ‘Divisions’ and ‘sub-Areas’ that designate the geographical areas of sea in which stocks occur.

17 Through negotiations in the Fisheries Council Fisheries Ministers have in the past agreed TACs above the level advised. Written evidence from the NEF (FBR0007)

18 Paul G Fernandez and Dr Bryce Stewart, ‘Fact Check: is 80% of UK fish given away to the rest of Europe?’, The Conversation (April 14 2016): [accessed 7 December 2016]; European Commission, Fishing TACs and quotas 2015: [accessed 7 December 2016]

19 In the UK, national quotas are distributed on the basis of “Fixed Quota Allocation” (FQA) units held by groups of vessels or producers’ organisations. These FQA units are based on vessels’ historic landings during a fixed reference period.

20 ‘Greenpeace seeks legal action over unfair fishing quota’, Greenpeace (26 January 2015): [accessed 7 December 2016]

21 Q 2; Dr Stewart noted that MSY has been described by some as a target that should not be overshot, because overshooting it would lead to overfishing of a stock and subsequent stock decline.

22 Shared fish are those fish that move between two or more coastal state EEZs in their lifecycle. Straddling stocks are those stocks that move between the EEZs of coastal states and high seas, i.e. sea that lies beyond an EEZ.

23 European Commission, ‘The Common Fisheries Policy - Management of EU Fisheries’: [accessed 7 December 2016]

24 There are currently a number of agreements with third party countries, the most substantial of which are the ‘Northern Agreements’ between the EU and Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. European Commission, ‘Bilateral Agreements with countries outside the EU’: [accessed 7 December 2016]

25 Inshore waters are defined as the 0-12 nautical mile zone from the baseline of the coast. Through subsequent reforms of the CFP, derogations have been made from the principle of equal access preserving the inshore zone to Member States, and those states who enjoy historic access rights to the 6-12 nautical mile inshore zone of other countries, as set out in Council Regulation (EC) No 2371/2002 on the conservation and sustainable exploitation of fisheries resources under the Common Fisheries Policy, 20 December 2002, OJ L 358/59; European Commission, ‘Access to Waters—Managing Fisheries’: [accessed 7 December 2016]

26 The UK Exclusive Economic Zone is adjacent to six EU countries, namely Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, as well as non-EU countries such as Norway and the Faroe Islands and non-exclusive high seas.

27 European Commission, ‘The Common Fisheries Policy - Management of EU Fisheries’: http://ec.
[accessed 7 December 2016]

28 HM Government, Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union: Fisheries report

31 Written evidence from UKIP (FBR0009) and Fishing for Leave (FBR0002); Q 14 (Bertie Armstrong)

32 Written evidence from Fishing for Leave (FBR0002)

33 HM Government, Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union: Fisheries report

34 See for example, Government Explanatory Memorandum, Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on establishing a multi-annual plan for demersal stocks in the North Sea and the fisheries exploiting those stocks and repealing, 3 August 2016, COM(2016) 493

35 The EU has exclusive competence for fisheries management through Article 38, Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, OJ C 326 (consolidated version of 26 October 2012). When the UK withdraws from the EU, it will withdraw from the Treaty. Even in the closely related trade and regulatory relationship between European Economic Area (EEA) countries and the EU, fisheries is excluded.

36 ‘Scottish Fisheries Post-Brexit: A Sea of Opportunities’, Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (13 September, 2016): [accessed 7 December 2016]

37 Q 12 (Barrie Deas, Bertie Armstrong)

38 Written evidence from Fishing for Leave (FBR0002)

40 Written evidence from the NEF (FBR0007), the Institute for European Environment Policy (IEEP) (FBR0003) and Dr Thomas Appleby (FBR0012); Q 1 (Prof Richard Barnes)

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