Brexit: fisheries Contents

Chapter 7: Access and negotiating quotas

Contentious negotiations

124.Any successful negotiation will require the EU, as well as the UK, to be ready to reach agreement, but according to Professor Barnes, experience showed the EU was unwilling to move away from existing practices, because “as soon as you start to unpick and negotiate differentials in one area, it has a knock-on effect in other areas”.220 The SIA concurred, noting it would be “extremely challenging and contentious for all concerned”.221

125.This difficulty was recognised by the European Commission, which told us in 2008 that “relative stability is a principle that for most Member States has been a sacred principle of the Common Fisheries Policy”.222 The internal dynamics of the EU could be a further complicating factor: while the UK may only have an interest in preserving access to fishing in neighbouring waters, the EU will negotiate as a single coastal state. The result, Mr Farnell argued, could be that Member States that have an interest in fishing in UK waters, but have little to offer by way of reciprocal access, will be vigilant in ensuring the future arrangements with the UK satisfy their interests. The international politics of the EU would, he cautioned, make it “impossible for the UK to negotiate an agreement with the EU that would significantly change the fisheries access of some individual EU Member States but not others”.223

Access: the great lever

126.Mr Armstrong argued that the UK would be in a strong position to negotiate new allocations of TACs. He argued that “the present arrangements of relative stability … could be revisited by us, and the great lever for the re-visit is access. We could decide who had access once those figures were set.” He also said: “the great difference in our negotiating position as a coastal state is that we can have access to French waters, of course, and they can have access to our waters of course, but on our terms”.224

127.Mr Armstrong also suggested that “Everybody else needs access to us”, and consequently the UK had “a fine hand of cards if there is the political backbone to chase this grand prize”.225 Similarly, Fishing for Leave noted that “The UK EEZ includes some of the most productive and prime aquatic real estate in the world with the majority of EU catches being taken from what should, and will be, UK waters.” 226 Consequently, they argued, the UK should “close access to our waters for the EU fleet”. UKIP agreed.227

128.The Minister echoed the ‘lever’ argument: “EU countries and other European countries benefit considerably more from the access they have to UK waters than we benefit from access to their waters”. He argued that this imbalance should be addressed,228 and remarked: “if we are entering a negotiation, recognising where our strengths lie is an important first principle.”229 As we have noted, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea grants coastal states the exclusive right to govern and exploit the resources within their EEZs. This was acknowledged by the Minister: “the EEZ is the extent of [UK] fishing rights”, so that after the UK leaves the EU, the legal baseline will be an “altogether different one”.230 It will thus be for the Government to negotiate with other EU countries the extent to which their vessels will be allowed to fish in UK waters going forward.

129.Many witnesses argued in favour of negotiating some form of reciprocal access arrangements, in order to allow UK vessels to access fishing grounds in EU waters.231 Mr Deas told us: “We need access, we want access, to Irish waters, to French waters.”232 Access to Norwegian waters was also essential. But, he argued, there should be an exclusive 12 nautical mile zone for UK fishers, outside which “we need some kind of collaborative management on shared stocks”.233

130.Fishing for Leave, though, did not see a loss of access to fishing in EU waters as a real risk to the UK industry: “although, in the case of a few fisheries and areas, there would be some loss to a small number of the UK fleet, it would mean an adjustment in fishing patterns more than compensated for with the huge volume of fisheries resources repatriated to the UK”.234 The Minister also told us that “the access other countries have to our EEZ and the volume of fish they catch within our EEZ is significant when compared to the corresponding access we have in EU waters”.235

131.We note that the ‘lever’ argument is premised on the idea that, by withholding access to fishing in the UK EEZ, the UK can get better quota allocations. As we have noted, the extent to which quotas for shared stocks will increase after Brexit will depend on negotiations with the EU, unless the UK were to set TACs for, and exploit, shared stocks unilaterally. But the Minister himself appeared to rule out unilateral action:

“When it is said, ‘We are going to take back control of our EEZ out to 200 nautical miles or the median line’, it sounds perhaps more dramatic than it might be, in that even having established control of our EEZ we would then still engage in international negotiations around mutual access rights, mutual shares and the like.”236

132.However the Government approaches a renegotiation of allocations and access to fishing grounds, Dr Stewart and the NEF warned that it should do so on the basis of consultation with the industry.237 Dr Stewart noted that when stocks were portioned in a new way, a significant number of vessels would need to change their fishing practices in response. As a result, he argued, the Government would need to “consult closely with the industry about what their desires really are”.238 The NEF agreed. The evolution of the fishing industry had led to specialisation, both by species and by area, meaning that EU countries fished for different species in each other’s EEZs: “From fishing gear to processing plants to national tastes—it would take decades to reverse this process of specialisation and for each nation to start effectively fishing the diversity of species they catch closer to shore.”239 Mr Armstrong noted that “Industries have been built up in other countries—Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain—that depend on access to [the UK EEZ]”. These countries might use “every lever” to preserve their access, but Mr Armstrong argued that this “must be resisted.”240

133.Finally, there is a question of sequencing. Mr Armstrong’s “strongest recommendation” was that the negotiations on new access arrangements should be deferred until after the UK had withdrawn from the EU. He argued that “you do not in the Brexit process organise access for all those who want it … you organise it afterwards”. He elaborated: “We could start … with the share of fish being static, but they would have to catch them elsewhere than our waters until such time as an arrangement had been made with us.” 241

134.This would mean that the quota allocations between the UK and other Member States could remain static at first, but that those countries that held quotas for shared stocks occurring in UK waters would have to catch their quotas outside the UK EEZ until an explicit agreement about fishing quotas in the UK EEZ had been made.242 Though we acknowledge the appeal of this approach, which would minimise the risk of policy linkage between continued access to fishing grounds in the UK EEZ and the wider Brexit negotiations, that linkage may be inescapable in reality, given the interest of EU countries in preserving the current access arrangements.

135.Catch statistics suggest that EU vessels have a clear interest in preserving access to the UK EEZ, and give support to the Minister’s view that there is an imbalance between the benefits derived by EU vessels fishing in the UK EEZ and those derived by UK vessels fishing in the EU.

136.Unilateral restriction on access to fishing in the UK EEZ would almost certainly lead to reciprocal restrictions being placed on UK vessels fishing in the EU EEZ. This would also have a profound effect both on the fishing industry in the EU and on the UK fleet that relies on fishing outside the UK EEZ. Some form of mutual access arrangements must therefore be negotiated.

137.The historic reluctance of Member States to renegotiate the relative stability key suggests that negotiating new quota allocations after Brexit will be difficult. Such difficulty will be accentuated if these negotiations overlap with the wider negotiations on EU withdrawal. The Government could use access to fishing within the UK EEZ as a lever for achieving a better allocation of quotas, but must also bear in mind the need for co-operation in ensuring the long-term sustainability of stocks.

The power of walking away

138.While the CFP obliges Member States to reach agreement on the exploitation rates of given stocks in the Council, bilateral agreements and coastal state negotiations are not institutionalised to the same degree. This gives states the power to walk away from negotiations if they do not agree on the Total Allowable Catch. This, Ms Curtis told us, has happened when states disagreed over the size of a stock and what proportion should fall to them.243

139.The SIA noted that, whereas the EU was able to withhold accession as a bargaining tool when the UK joined the (then) EEC and thereby achieve equal access to the UK EEZ, it would have no similar leverage in future:

“There is not an option of the EU refusing to let the UK leave if agreement cannot be reached. This could be seen as strengthening the UK’s negotiating hand, particularly if the default position is a reversion to a 200 mile UK EEZ with no automatic access rights for EU Member States.”244

But the SIA also warned that “Superficially advantageous as this may be, the reality is that a breakdown in negotiations would carry a high risk of jeopardising good fisheries management—and could lead to major issues of enforcement over new access or catch limits.”245

140.Mr Landmark told us that even under the auspices of the bilateral framework agreement between the EU and Norway, reaching agreement could be difficult.246 This was also true for coastal state negotiations. Mr Thorgeirsson told us that in the past, disagreement had arisen over the TAC, and the share that each coastal state would receive, for mackerel in the North East Atlantic. The result, he told us, was that “these stocks have been grossly overfished, according to scientific advice”.247 This, the NEF noted, was not surprising, because negotiations on TACs outside the binding framework of EU law “can, and do, break down … Ultimately it is the stakeholder that does not have a voice during quota negotiations—the fish stocks and future generations—that lose.” 248

141.The Minister acknowledged these risks: “One of the shortcomings sometimes of these looser types of agreements is that, unlike the EU where ultimately it comes down to a vote on QMV if all else fails, it is harder to sometimes reach agreement at all.” This could lead to disruption for the industry—he referenced cod disagreements between the EU and Norway, and stalemate over mackerel in coastal state negotiations, which led to several years of unilateral TACs for mackerel.249

Policy linkage: trade

142.The power to walk away in fisheries negotiations is undoubtedly a new negotiating tool for the UK, as it approaches Brexit and beyond. But aside from the real risk that this strategy poses for fish stocks, it could also be met with trade retaliations. In the past, the EU has exerted pressure on coastal states when those states were seen to act unilaterally with regard to shared stocks. Thus trade restrictions were imposed on the Faroe Islands in 2014, after the two parties failed to agree on shares of the TAC for herring.250

143.Mr Farnell told us that in the event the UK were to restrict access to the fishing in the UK EEZ, “the EU would be likely to restrict UK market access”.251 Similarly, the IEEP argued that “the relative stability key is likely to be one of the primary potential areas for trade-offs in the exit negotiations, e.g. against certain aspects of market access”.252 We return to the issue of trade in Chapter 8.

144.As an independent coastal state the UK will in principle be able to ‘walk away’ from negotiations with other coastal states if the compromises reached on TACs or quota shares are not aligned to UK interests. Walking away would, by leading to unilateral management of shared stocks, risk undermining the sustainability of fish stocks. It would also invite retaliation in other areas, including trade. Consequently, walking away should be a last resort.

221 Written evidence from the SIA (FBR0008)

222 Oral evidence taken before the European Union Select Committee into the progress of the Common Fisheries Policy, 7 May 2008 (Session 2007–8), 591

223 Written evidence from John Farnell (FBR0005)

224 Q 14 and Q17

226 Written evidence from Fishing for Leave (FBR0002)

227 Written evidence from UKIP (FBR0009)

231 Written evidence from the Angling Trust (FBR0013), WWF (FBR0010), the NEF (FBR0007) and Dr Thomas Appleby (FBR0012); Q 5 (Dr Bryce Stewart)

234 Written evidence from Dr Thomas Appleby (FBR0012)

237 Written evidence from the NEF (FBR0007); Q 3 (Dr Bryce Stewart)

239 Written evidence from the NEF (FBR0007)

244 Written evidence from the SIA (FBR0008)

245 Written evidence from the SIA (FBR0008)

248 Written evidence from the NEF (FBR0007)

250 ‘EU lifts fish sanctions on Faroe Islands, WTO dispute closed’, International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (27 August 2014):
[accessed 7 December 2016]

251 Written evidence from John Farnell (FBR0005)

252 Written evidence from the IEEP (FBR0003)

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