Fishing for facts: what does the Brexit fisheries agreement mean?

Image of Blue walleye Sander vitreus glaucus, an extinct species of the Great Lakes in North America
Blue walleye Sander vitreus glaucus, an extinct species of the Great Lakes in North America. Image by Image: NOAA/GLERL

We always knew that fisheries would be one of the most difficult chapters in the negotiations for a Brexit trade deal. Personally, I didn’t take the risk of forecasting whether an agreement on fisheries would be reached or not. But I did predict that, if a deal was done, it would be so complicated, and couched in such incomprehensible fisheries statistics, that both sides could claim victory. I wasn’t wrong.

What emerged on 24 December from many months of negotiations between the UK and the EU was a draft agreement of 1,246 pages, with 19 pages on fisheries, of which 13 pages are devoted to articles and six pages to annexes. The articles, which are mainly about procedure, are difficult to follow even for a practised observer, and the annexes, which are mainly lists of species and shares, are incomprehensible for the non-expert.

Another document that emerged on 24 December was the British government’s ‘summary explainer’, which has a page on fisheries. Unsurprisingly, this is selective and includes some spin.

So let’s extract the basic facts from the sea of words. If you want to study the 19 pages on fisheries, they have been published in a convenient form by The Fishing Daily. Here I try to summarise them in layperson’s language. The agreement provides for:

  • an ‘adjustment period’ of 5½ years from 2021 to mid-2026
  • arrangements for subsequent years
  • the possibility of terminating the agreement
  • various other matters

The adjustment period

The EU’s share of fishing quotas in UK waters will be progressively reduced, in such a way that – according to the government’s explainer – the annual quota for UK fishing boats will be increased by 25 percent of the value of the EU catch in UK waters, thus transferring £146m worth of quotas from EU vessels to British vessels.

Let’s try to put this in relative terms. Bearing in mind that at present the UK fishing fleet has the right to catch just under half of the annual quota in UK waters, while the EU27 fleet has about a third, and boats from Norway and the Faroe Islands have the rest, I estimate that by the end of the ‘adjustment period’ the EU’s share of fishing quotas in UK waters will have dropped from its present level of about 33 percent to about 25 percent, while the share enjoyed by British boats will have gone up from just under 50 percent to about 55 percent. This estimate depends on a number of variables, but it’s broadly correct.

This is a significant increase for the British fishing industry, though it hardly corresponds to the exaggerated promises made in the 2016 referendum campaign, for example by Fishing for Leave which claimed that Brexit would deliver “a golden opportunity to regain 70% of the UK’s fisheries resources”.

Because of the way in which the agreement is framed, it’s difficult to know whether the increase in catch possibilities is fairly shared between the four nations of the UK. I guess the Scottish fishing organisations are looking into this question urgently.

The post-2025 regime

From mid-2026 onwards, there will be a standstill in quota reductions, and the EU’s share of fishing quotas in UK waters will remain the same as in 2025. This crucial standstill provision is diabolically well hidden in the text, in a column in an annex headed ‘2026 onwards’.

There will still be annual negotiations on ‘total allowable catches’ and access to waters, for which there will be an elaborate procedure for reaching agreement, beginning in January of the preceding year. If finally there is no agreement, then either party “may take compensatory measures commensurate to the economic and societal impact of the change in the level and conditions of access to waters. Such impact shall be measured on the basis of reliable evidence and not merely on conjecture and remote possibility … The party may suspend, in whole or in part, access to its waters and the preferential tariff treatment granted to fishery products”. This clause is significant for the EU, since it will allow it to impose tariffs on imports of British fish if there is no agreement on total allowable catches and access to waters, and that is a powerful weapon.

I must say that the author of the phrase “on the basis of reliable evidence and not merely on conjecture and remote possibility” has a wry sense of humour, for it seems to be a sardonic comment on Brexit.

Termination

The agreement says that either party may terminate the fisheries part of the agreement at any time, with nine months’ notice. In that case, the parts of the agreement relating to trade, aviation and road transport would also terminate automatically. Both for the UK and for the EU, this ‘guillotine clause’ would be a nuclear option.

Other matters

There is plenty more in the agreement. It includes a set of principles on the management of stocks “to ensure that fishing activities are environmentally sustainable” and to “progressively restore populations of harvested species above biomass levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield”. It creates a Specialised Committee on Fisheries, with representatives from both sides, to manage the agreement and prepare annual consultations. It provides for a review of the agreement in 2030.

In summary, the agreement provides a good basis for cooperation on fisheries between the UK and the EU in coming years. It offers the British fishing industry a significant increase in quotas over a five-year period, but little hope of further increases after that.

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