The issue of fishing rights is fast becoming one of the most curious paradoxes of the Brexit negotiations and stalling a broader, deal-defining trade agreement between the EU and the UK.

Only a few weeks remain before London and Brussels formalise their separation on 2 January, and the distribution of fishing quotas after Brexit remains a key battleground for representatives on both sides. Although the industry contributes just over 0.12% of the UK’s economic output (according to a Parliament study), the fishing sector is having a considerable influence on negotiations. 

On mainland Europe, French President Emanuel Macron needs to please fishing communities ahead of the 2022 general election, while across the channel UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to deliver what he promised during and after his Brexit campaign. Ports on both fronts are also closely following developments, hoping for a favourable outcome that would guarantee them landings and support free trade. 

Fishing rights in the UK

At the heart of the stalemate between the UK and the EU is the distribution of fishing quotas, which Britain is attempting to increase after Brexit. Fishing fleets and stocks in European waters are currently managed through the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), a set of rules first agreed in 1970 and last updated in 2014. 

While international regulation gives coastal states the right to manage natural resources in their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – measured as 200 nautical miles beyond domestic waters – agreements formalised in the CFP mean that EU states share one common fishing area. 

As part of its Brexit talks, the UK is currently aiming to claim back the entirety of its EEZ, which would give it the power to decide who fishes in its waters but require it to seek permission to fish in EU waters. However, obtaining this is proving challenging as crews from the Channel and North Sea ports of France, Belgium and the Netherlands are opposing the prospect of losing access. 

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“[The UK has] never been in the position of telling foreign vessels that they can’t fish in our waters.”

They claim that they have had access to the Channel and other British waters since before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was introduced in 1982 to regulate coastal states and their operations – at which time the UK was already part of the EU. 

“[The UK has] never been in the position of telling foreign vessels that they can’t fish in our waters because even before we joined the EU these waters represented the high seas and they were open to anyone,” comments Chris Davies, a former Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament, where he also chaired the Fisheries Committee before the UK’s transition period kicked off. 

“When we did the [CFP] deals back in the early 1970s, British fishermen weren’t interested in the English Channel,” he adds, pointing to their preference for catching in Iceland and Canada. 

Conversely, the French and Dutch have traditionally been doing business in the English Channel, and their communities fear that being deprived of this area could prove fatal for them in the aftermath of Brexit.

Brexit and fishing: what’s in it for ports?

Whilst not the centre of the issue, ports have their fair share of interest in the outcome of the negotiations, according to British Ports Association (BPA) head of policy and external affairs Mark Simmonds. 

The BPA sees Brexit as a chance to re-evaluate the government’s Fisheries Bill (which is meant to substitute the CFP), with two key objectives: increasing landings and securing ports’ access to fishing funding once the transition is over. 

“Our interest is primarily in getting more fish landed across UK ports.”

“Our interest is primarily in getting more fish landed across UK ports,” he says, adding that whether these landings should come from British boats or foreign vessels has little importance for BPA members. “The English fleet probably isn’t large enough to realise many of the opportunities that there are, so I am not concerned about where the boats come from; as long as they’re catching in UK waters we think the majority should be landed into a UK port.”

There is clear scope for improvement in these regards, as data from the UK Marine Management Organisation shows that UK vessels landed some £106m worth of fish from the EU economic zone between 2012 and 2016, while EU vessels landed £521m in UK waters during the same period. 

According to Simmonds, some welcome progress has recently been made. In particular, the UK currently ties vessel licenses and quotas to certain economic link conditions that include landing 50% of fish in a UK port and employing crews with at least half of their number made up by residents of a UK coastal area. “The UK Government recently changed [these conditions] and put more emphasis on landings and we’re pleased about that,” he says. “It’s getting accepted across most of the UK now that landings are the best way to realise the economic benefits from our fisheries.”

Meanwhile, Davies says the fishing processing sector employs more people than the catching segment and would benefit from more landings. “As far as the economy of the port is concerned, the fishing processing industry is more important, so fish processors don’t care about what nationality is the company that catches the fish,” he says. “I assume they will want to be able to export the product once they’ve packaged it but also have an arrangement which encourages more vessels to not simply catch the fish in British waters but be landing them in British ports.” 

How a no-deal scenario could impact ports

Finding an agreement on fishing is crucial, not only for coastal communities but also in the context of finalising a much-awaited trade deal. As both Simmonds and Davies agree, failing to do so would have potentially negative repercussions on the ports sector and its supply chain. 

“As ports, we’re really concerned about the fact that we export up to 80% of the fish that we catch and land in the UK, while we import a similar percentage of the fish we eat,” says Simmonds. “Essentially we don’t eat our own fish, and the biggest market for that fish is Europe.”

“The EU simply wants to ensure that it has some long-term agreements with the UK which retain the maximum access to UK waters.”

Failing to reach a deal risks having a devastating impact on the supply chains that carry fish between the UK and the rest of the EU. “If you ever stand at the entrance of the Port of Boulogne-Sur-Mer (a key fishing hub in France) at six or seven o’clock in the morning, you will see one lorry after another coming in from [the UK ports of] Fraserburgh and Peterhead in succession and that’s what the deal is,” comments Davies. 

“A driver can get from Peterhead to Boulogne within one shift or two rest breaks; any delays at the ports, any extra customs problems or veterinary inspections and he can’t do it in a day so the cost will increase and the price you can get for fresh goods will go down because it won’t be so fresh. And that’s without other informal or formal restrictions getting in the way of the production line.”

This sentiment is shared on the other side of the Channel, Simmonds says. “We are members of the European Sea Ports Organisation and through that, we talk to other European ports and we all want the same thing; none of us wants new trade barriers,” he comments. 

“So far as the EU is concerned from the fishing point of view, it’s a long historic right and its vessels have been fishing within these waters, which will now become an exclusively British EEZ, for a long time,” adds Davies. 

With time running out, much of Europe’s attention remains on this relatively small industry and modest £1.4bn contribution to the UK economy. “The EU simply wants to ensure that it has some long-term agreements with the UK which retain the maximum access to UK waters,” he concludes. “If it doesn’t get that, then all sorts of other obstacles will be put in the way of British goods being exported.”