Beyond Brexit: food, environment, energy and health Contents

Chapter 3: Fishing

Background and context

81.The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was developed during the 1970s and early 1980s. Its stated objective is to ensure that fishing is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable, and to harmonise competition between fishers in the EU.

82.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 and regulates marketing standards for fish products.

83.Fish species that move in and out of national waters are typically managed using catch limitations in the form of Total Allowable Catches (TACs) and quotas, to ensure that the number of fish caught in any given year does not undermine the sustainability of that stock. TACs and quotas are also used as fisheries management tools outside the CFP.

84.Once a species’ TAC has been agreed, on the basis of scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), it is divided among countries with a relevant fishing interest. Within the EU this is done by reference to ‘relative stability’, which was established in 1983 on the basis of historic catches. The relative stability share has remained constant over time.100

85.For stocks that are shared101 and jointly managed with non-EU countries, the TACs are agreed with those countries bilaterally or in coastal state negotiations.102 The European Commission negotiates the TACs, the proportion of the TAC that the Parties receive, and mutual fishing access in EU and third party waters, on behalf of Member States.

86.The CFP regulates fishing activities within its members’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs),103 though Member States retain 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 State fishers have historic rights to fish in the 6–12 nautical mile zones belonging to other EU countries. This was the case in UK inshore waters while the UK was a Member State.

87.As we noted in our report Brexit: fisheries, many in the fishing industry felt that the EU, and the CFP, had disadvantaged UK fishing ever since the UK’s accession to the EU in 1973, and therefore saw the UK’s withdrawal from the EU as an opportunity to rejuvenate the sector. They looked forward to a new fisheries management regime tailored to UK conditions, and to increased fishing opportunities as EU access to UK waters was cut.104

88.During the UK-EU future relationship negotiations, Ministers emphasised that from the point of withdrawal the UK would become an “independent coastal state”, “taking back control of fisheries in the UK’s exclusive economic zone”.105 In December 2019, the Prime Minister spoke of “[restoring] to this country the advantages of its spectacular marine wealth, and that is exactly what we will do, once we become an independent coastal state”.106

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement

89.The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA)107 gradually reduces the EU’s quotas to fish in UK waters by approximately 25 per cent between January 2021 and June 2026 (‘the adjustment period’). These changes are set out in Annex FISH.1 and Annex FISH.2.

90.Article FISH.8(4c) and Annex FISH.4 Article 2 of the TCA preserve EU fishing access to the 6–12 mile zone as it stood on 31 December 2020 for the duration of the adjustment period, in certain areas of English and Welsh inshore waters.

91.Article FISH.16 establishes a Specialised Committee on Fisheries whose role will include (but not be limited to):

The same Article provides for both Parties to grant licences for the other Party’s vessels to fish in their waters.

92.In addition, Article INST.36 states that if either Party experiences “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature, including in relation to fishing activities and their dependent communities, that are liable to persist”, it may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures. These must be restricted in scope and duration “to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation”, and should, as far as possible not disturb the functioning of the Agreement. The Article is not time-limited, so it will remain in force even after the initial five-year adjustment period on fish quotas has come to an end in 2026—for instance, if the UK were then to take unilateral action that caused serious difficulties for EU fishing communities or vice versa.

93.The reaction to the TCA from the fishing industry was not positive. The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) described it as “very disappointing”,108 while the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) told us: “[We] want to state strongly that [we disagree] with the Government’s presentation of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement as a major success when it is clear to the industry that it is not.”109

94.The evaluation from Fergus Ewing MSP, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, was as follows:

“The gap between UK Government rhetoric on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and reality, is vast … The reality is that [the Prime Minister’s] government, and Theresa May’s before that, committed to delivering frictionless trade, full control over access to waters and a ‘sea of opportunity’ and they failed on all counts.”110

95.Fishing Minister Victoria Prentis MP told us that the TCA’s protection of tariff-free exports of fish products from the UK to the EU was “very important to our fishermen”, but also acknowledged the disappointment we heard from the sector: “It is true to say that we had, as an industry, dreamed some pretty big dreams … It is also true to say that we did not get everything we asked for”.111

Fishing access and quota

96.Regarding the quota redistribution, the Minister told us: “We have a 25 per cent uplift. That is undoubtedly a gain. It means that we will have, after five and a half years, 25 per cent more than we have at the moment.”112

97.Fergus Ewing MSP countered that “there is clear confusion over the 25% increase claim which obviously isn’t correct either in tonnage or value terms”.113 The SFF criticised the 25 per cent figure, arguing that for some species Government had used the relative stability share as the baseline rather than the year-end outcome after mid-year quota swaps, and thus “in some cases, the UK will actually have fewer ‘fishing opportunities’ for some demersal species than it had under the Common Fisheries Policy”.114

98.On 20 January 2021 the BBC radio programme More or Less conducted a fact-check of ministerial claims regarding the quota uplift, and concluded that because the EU-27 had about a third of the fishing rights in UK waters prior to 1 January while the UK had approximately half, the TCA settlement means that, by value, “the UK’s share of the quota in UK waters rises from 50 per cent to 58.3 per cent”.115 While the UK will, over five years, gain 25 per cent of the EU’s fishing quota in UK waters, the UK’s share of the quota in its own waters will thus increase by 16.6 per cent.

99.Witnesses also argued that the species whose quota will increase are not necessarily of value to the UK fishing industry. According to the SFF, “There is an element of what are often referred to as ‘paper fish’ in the agreement where the value in the uplift of a quota, such as North Sea sole, is largely meaningless given its historical underutilisation by the UK fleet.”116 Professor Richard Barnes, Chris Williams and Griffin Carpenter noted in a joint submission that “of the increase in value across 56 fish stocks that undergo a change, 41% comes from just one mackerel stock. Some stocks like cod in the English Channel do not undergo any change at all despite the UK fishing industry prioritising them.”117 And the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association (NUTFA) argued that “new gains are largely for pelagic and North Sea species (Norway Pout, Horse Mackerel, Hake, Sprat) that are unsuitable for the under ten sector”.118

100.The Rt Hon George Eustice MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told us: “Although I appreciate that it is probably short of what the industry would have hoped in terms of a sharing arrangement after five years, it nevertheless represents a big step in the right direction.”119

101.The ability to export fish and seafood products to the EU tariff-free is vital to the prosperity of the UK’s seafood sector, and we welcome the fact that the TCA achieves this. But this outcome is undermined by other serious shortcomings.

102.The Government asserts that UK fishers will have access to 25 per cent more quota in five and a half years’ time: independent analysis suggests that the UK’s share of the quota in its own waters will in fact increase by 16.6 per cent.

103.The species whose quota will increase are not necessarily those of value to the UK fishing industry, and will benefit some parts of the sector more than others. The industry will need to adapt as the quota adjustments take effect.

104.When conducting future quota negotiations with the EU, the Government should consult with industry and devolved administrations to ensure that they are prioritising appropriate stocks. In the meantime, the quota gained through the TCA settlement should, as far as possible, be distributed to support those parts of the sector that would otherwise benefit less from the overall deal, such as inshore fishers.

6–12 mile zone

105.In a letter to the Secretary of State on access to UK fisheries post-Brexit, dated 13 March 2020, we noted that there were “significant potential benefits for the inshore fleet to be gained from significantly reducing non-UK access to the 6–12 mile zone”.120 On 13 October 2020 Victoria Prentis MP informed the House of Commons that “any access negotiated with the EU will cover only the UK’s exclusive economic zone, and not the 0 to 12-mile zone”.121

106.As a result, according to NUTFA, “probably the most damaging outcome from the TCA, and certainly the one that has produced the majority of calls from fishermen to our offices is the failure to secure exclusive access to the 6–12 mile zone of our own waters.”122 The NFFO also expressed disappointment at this outcome, particularly as the EU fleet “could easily catch its quotas outside the UK’s coastal zone”.123

107.In light of ministerial statements during the future relationship negotiations, we were surprised that the TCA grants EU vessels fishing access to parts of the UK’s 6–12 mile zone. We acknowledge this is a politically contentious subject, but urge the Government to explore ways to reduce EU fishers’ access to the UK’s coastal waters while ensuring they are still able to catch their full quota.

End of the adjustment period

108.Prof Richard Barnes et al told us:

“It is possible to argue that Annex FISH1 only sets quota shares until the end of 2026. However, this would be a difficult argument to make because it runs counter to the ordinary reading of the text. The use of the term ‘onwards’ means that the level of catch at 2026 will continue as long as the agreement remains in force or until the Parties agree to change the terms of the agreement. It also runs counter to the wider objective of stabilizing fishing and trading rights after an adjustment period … There is no provision that supports any unilateral changing of quota beyond 2026. The TCA envisages that each Party may unilaterally notify the other Party of changes to the level and conditions of access (FISH8(5)). However, this is subject to retaliatory and remedial measures under the TCA.”124

109.The fishing industry wants to see a change of approach after the adjustment period, despite the potential for retaliatory action. The SFF acknowledged that a change of course would potentially trigger “what appear to be very punitive sanctions and penalties”, but added, “That is not to say however that we shouldn’t take this path.”125 The NFFO concurred: “It is crucial that the Government works with the industry to increase quota and change access arrangements at the end of the adjustment period.”126

110.The Secretary of State told us:

“After the five and a half years we are free to change those access arrangements … The TCA provides that in such a circumstance it would also be open to the EU to start to introduce some tariffs on some areas of fish exports, if it wanted. However, we have always had the view that, if the choice was really between having control of your fishing grounds and the ability to change sharing arrangements or tariff-free access on fish, you would probably opt for the former rather than the latter.”127

111.The UK fishing fleet is heavily dependent on exporting to the EU market, and thus has to balance its need to export with its desire to acquire more fishing rights.

112.While the Fisheries Minister highlighted the importance of tariff-free access for the fisheries sector, the Secretary of State prioritised control over the UK’s fishing waters. Both are important considerations, but their juxtaposition contributes to mixed messages being received by the fishing industry over whether the Government will seek to further reduce the EU’s ability to fish in UK waters after the adjustment period.

113.There is no doubt that the safeguarding measures in the TCA will be a serious barrier to any unilateral reform of access to UK fishing waters. No reform should be considered without full consultation with the whole fishing supply chain, including fishers and those who process, market and export their produce, and with the devolved administrations.

Quota swaps

114.Fishing quotas can be swapped between EU Member States mid-year to help avoid ‘choke’.128 The Fisheries Minister told us that these quota swaps will now be conducted “Government to Government”, rather than between fishing organisations and overseen by regulators as was previously the case.129 Neil Hornby, Director of Marine and Fisheries at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, acknowledged: “I do not think it will be as flexible as it was before. We will have set points in the year when we do the exchanges, rather than the ongoing system we had before.”130

115.SFF told us:

“The TCA does make provision for in-year exchanges of quota between the EU and UK, but these mechanisms have not yet been developed or agreed, and the Specialised Committee on Fisheries, a new body set up under the TCA, will have a role in overseeing this. It is imperative that this is progressed urgently to avoid very significant harm to our demersal sector in 2021 and beyond.”131

116.Fergus Ewing MSP added: “The loss of International quota swaps has proven to be a critical weakness. The options of in year exchanges, as envisaged in the Specialised Committee, is of course a welcome element. But let’s be clear; it cannot replace International quota swaps. Nowhere near. It cannot deliver 140 exchanges in year.”132

117.Quota swaps have, in recent years, been an essential and mutually beneficial management tool for supporting sustainable fishing in mixed fisheries, and are vital to the functioning of both UK and EU fisheries. We greatly regret that the TCA has not maintained arrangements for swaps between producer organisations. The Government should seek to agree a process for in-year quota exchanges with the EU as a matter of urgency, and should seek to make that process as responsive and flexible as possible.

Fish exports

118.The UK Seafood Alliance told us that “the new customs and SPS procedures … have led to major disruption to established supply routes to the EU, particularly for live and fresh products”.133 NUTFA set out the new procedures in some detail:

“Despite endless promises that there would be little if any issues with exporting fish and shellfish post EU Exit, it is abundantly clear that the reverse is true. From the situation where prior to EU Exit, a consignment of live shellfish required one simple form for export, and no additional costs or delays, to the situation now where a similar consignment requires literally 100’s of forms, some reliant on an inadequate government customs system that was late in development, the presence of a vet to certify the health of the load, prior notification to the receiving member state’s customs department, very significant costs for customs clearance, massive delays resulting in the loss of income for both fishermen and exporters all underpinned by a frankly often pedantic approach by EU customs officials, to the extent that loads have been held up for a great deal of time on the basis of the use of the wrong coloured ink, to the slight misspelling of the Latin name for just one of the species aboard and so on.”134

119.Jimmy Buchan, Chief Executive Officer at the Scottish Seafood Association, told us: “No processor signed up for this. Regardless of what we think about Brexit or how we voted, no processor, including all my colleagues, signed up to have added costs for their business.”135

120.While the Secretary of State described these export challenges as “teething problems”,136 Prof Richard Barnes et al argued: “Some are attributable to a lack of experience with the new processes and will be mitigated over time and through investment in border infrastructure and facilities. However, some are an inevitable consequence of leaving the single market and customs union.”137

121.One apparently permanent consequence is a ban on the export of live bivalve molluscs from some areas of UK waters to the EU before they have been depurated. The Secretary of State informed us that the ban was “a change in position from the European Union …. We think it is legally wrong, and we are therefore working up the technical dossier to try to unblock the problem.”138 He subsequently wrote to Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, to seek a solution,139 but at the time of writing the export ban remained in place.

122.Speaking to us in mid-January, the Fisheries Minister described the action she was taking in an effort to resolve the export challenges. This included “a daily call with [Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs] to deal with very granular issues”, “a lot of engagement with those in the fishing industry and those trying to export … to feed in specific problems they are having”, and “dealing with Member States directly … so that we can get down into the nitty gritty of what we need to do”.140

123.In addition, the Government launched a £23 million Seafood Disruption Support Scheme targeted at fishing export businesses “who can evidence a genuine loss in exporting fish and shellfish to the EU” between 1 and 31 January. The scheme was targeted at small and medium enterprises and the maximum claim available to individual operators was £100,000.141

124.Some of the difficulties the fishing industry is experiencing with exporting products to the EU are probably ‘teething problems’ which can be solved with familiarity and guidance. We welcome the Minister’s efforts across the sector, Government and with Member States to resolve these, and urge the Government to maintain financial support for the sector while these initial challenges remain.

125.But other difficulties facing the fishing industry are the direct result of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and its new status as a third country, and thus represent unavoidable, long-term impacts on the sector. These new challenges disproportionately affect smaller fishing operators.

Cooperation with the EU

126.Lisa McGuinness, Head of Compliance at Marine Scotland, assured us that in the lead-up to the end of the transition period, “Discussions took place with the Commission on behalf of Member States on data sharing of things such as electronic logbooks, sales information, [vessel monitoring system] and catch statistics … Fortunately, access to the data did not stop and we did not lose any information post transition.”142 Phil Haslam, Director of Operations at the Marine Management Organisation, agreed: “There is a very firm handshake between neighbouring fisheries authorities. If there is any non-compliant behaviour or any misunderstanding, the operational collaboration route is open and we can exchange information.”143

127.On the matter of issuing fishing licences to UK and EU vessels, Phil Haslam told us: “It was very much a joint endeavour. It had to be. [The EU] drew up a list of vessels requiring access to our waters, and we did likewise. We exchanged and ratified those lists, to make sure that they made sense, and we issued on the basis of that.”144 He added: “During the period from about 11 o’clock to half-past 11 on New Year’s Eve, 1,304 EU vessels and 1,012 UK vessels were licensed to enable them to access the waters to go about their business.”

128.Ensuring the long-term health and sustainability of fishing waters is necessarily a joint endeavour. We welcome the ongoing cooperation between UK and EU fishing regulators, and encourage all parties to maintain that cooperation to support sustainable and law-abiding fishing in both UK and EU waters.

Specialised Committee on Fisheries and parliamentary oversight

129.Speaking in mid-January, Neil Hornby told us: “We have started conversations on … how [the Specialised Committee on Fisheries] will operate and how often it will meet, and planning the work programme for it over the next few months. We are at the early stage of having those conversations.”145

130.A number of witnesses had views on the make-up of UK representation on the Specialised Committee. Fergus Ewing MSP, of the Scottish Government, argued that “given importance to Scotland I would expect, without hesitation, that we are fully involved and a lead UK member”.146 Prof Richard Barnes et al suggested that the UK team must represent “a legitimate cross section of interests that will be impacted by its mandate … some independent scientific expertise and industry representation is desirable”.147 They added that “it is essential that there is Parliamentary oversight of the Committee’s activities, especially the introduction of legally binding Decisions”.

131.While the UK was an EU Member State, the Government’s position at the annual TAC negotiations was subject to scrutiny by the relevant committees in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, as was the eventual outcome. In recent years, much of that scrutiny has focused on the sustainability of the agreed catch limits.148 When asked how Parliament will be kept informed of the Government’s position before and after the annual TAC negotiations, the Fisheries Minister informed us that a Written Ministerial Statement was laid in both Houses setting out the “high level negotiating goals”, and that she anticipated a follow-up statement when they concluded. She added, “We will try to present them in a way that is not just for people who speak fish”.149

132.We urge both the Government and the European Commission to establish the Specialised Committee on Fisheries swiftly, and to ensure that its work is informed by scientific expertise, the fishing industry, and civil society. It is also important that the devolved administrations have direct influence on the Committee’s work.

133.We welcome the Minister’s commitment to provide statements to the House both before and after the annual Total Allowable Catch (TAC) negotiations, but it is vital that such high-level statements are supplemented by expert parliamentary and select committee scrutiny.

100 HM Government, Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union Fisheries Report, (Summer 2014), para 1.7: [accessed 10 February 2021]

101 Shared stocks are fish that move between two or more coastal state EEZs in their lifecycle.

102 European Commission, ‘The Common Fisheries Policy—Management of EU Fisheries’: [accessed 10 February 2021]

103 EEZs are defined as the area of sea between 12 nautical miles and 200 nautical miles from a country’s coast. Where the waters of two adjacent territories overlap, a median line between their coastlines is used as the boundary.

104 European Union Committee, Brexit: fisheries (8th Report, Session 2016–17, HL Paper 78), para 24

105 HL Deb, 1 September 2020, col 67

106 HC Deb, 20 December 2019, col 148

108 Written evidence from the SFF (EEH0015)

109 Written evidence from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (EEH0031) and the SFF (EEH0015)

110 Written evidence from Mr Fergus Ewing to the inquiry on Access to UK fisheries (Session 2019–21) (ZAU0002)

111 Oral evidence taken before the EU Environment Sub-Committee session on Access to UK fisheries post Brexit, 13 January 2021 (Session 2019–21), Q 44

112 Ibid.

113 Written evidence from Mr Fergus Ewing to the inquiry on Access to UK fisheries (Session 2019–21) (ZAU0002)

114 Written evidence from the SFF (EEH0015)

115 BBC Sounds, ‘More or Less, Will the vaccine bring back normal life? GDP and Fishing’: [accessed 10 February 2021]

116 Written evidence from the SFF (EEH0015)

117 Written evidence from Professor Richard Barnes, Chris Williams and Griffin Carpenter (EEH0033)

118 Written evidence from NUTFA (EEH0041). “Under ten” refers to small fishing vessels, i.e. those shorter than 10 meters.

120 Letter from the Chair of the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, Lord Teverson to the Secretary of State Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, dated 13 March 2020:

121 HC Deb, 13 October 2020, col 265

122 Written evidence from NUTFA (EEH0041)

123 Written evidence from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (EEH0031)

124 Written evidence from Professor Richard Barnes, Chris Williams and Griffin Carpenter (EEH0033)

125 Written evidence from the SFF (EEH0015)

126 Written evidence from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (EEH0031)

128 Choke occurs when a fisher has to stop fishing in an area after running out of quota for one species found there, even though they still have quota remaining for other fish in that area.

129 Oral evidence taken before the EU Environment Sub-Committee session on Access to UK fisheries post Brexit, 13 January 2021 (Session 2019–21), Q 47

130 Ibid.

131 Written evidence from the SFF (EEH0015)

132 Written evidence from Mr Fergus Ewing to the inquiry on Access to UK fisheries (Session 2019–21) (ZAU0002)

133 Written evidence from the UK Seafood Industry Alliance (EEH0024)

134 Written evidence from NUTFA (EEH0041)

135 Oral evidence taken before the EU Environment Sub-Committee session on UK-EU agrifood trade, 16 December 2020 (Session 2019–21), Q 2

137 Written evidence from Professor Richard Barnes, Chris Williams and Griffin Carpenter (EEH0033)

139 Letter from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice to the EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, dated 8 February 2020: [accessed 10 February 2021]

140 Oral evidence taken before the EU Environment Sub-Committee session on Access to UK fisheries post Brexit, 13 January 2021 (Session 2019–21), Q 46

141 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ‘New financial support for the UK’s fishing businesses that export to the EU’: [accessed 4 March 2021] and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ‘£23 million Seafood Disruption Support Scheme now open’: [accessed 4 March 2021]

142 Oral evidence taken before the EU Environment Sub-Committee session on Access to UK fisheries post Brexit, 13 January 2021 (Session 2019–21), 42

143 Ibid., Q 40

144 Ibid., Q 38

145 Oral evidence taken before the EU Environment Sub-Committee session on Access to UK fisheries post Brexit, 13 January 2021 (Session 2019–21), Q 49

146 Written evidence from Mr Fergus Ewing to the inquiry on Access to UK fisheries (Session 2019–21) (ZAU0002)

147 Written evidence from Professor Richard Barnes, Chris Williams and Griffin Carpenter (EEH0033)

149 Oral evidence taken before the EU Environment Sub-Committee session on Access to UK fisheries post Brexit, 13 January 2021 (Session 2019–21), Q 50

© Parliamentary copyright 2021