I am a little baffled by the prominence of fishing in the debates over the UK's decision to leave the EU. The fact that the UK may regain control over fishing policy has had high visibility. However, the benefits of this have been poorly communicated. The primary association is being able to set fishing quotas. But it is unclear why this is a good thing. Fishing stocks have been declining over the last decades.

Fish do not stay within the geographical boundaries of nation states. Fishing is a textbook case of the tragedy of the commons. If each country's fishing industry fishes as much as is rational, all will suffer, as stocks dwindle. Up until this point, there is no controversy.

Some form of fishing quotas, agreed on a supranational basis, seems like a logical way round this predicament. The quotas the UK sticks to currently, within the EU framework, do not appear to be sufficiently stringent. UK fishing stocks are not being managed as sustainably as they could be. Even now, they face a long term existential threat of over-fishing.

From the above, it seems like EU-level management of stocks is a necessary, albeit insufficient, aspect of responsible fishing.

So what is the strongest case to be made in favour of the view that the UK setting fishing policy independently is a good thing? From my (limited) understanding of the stance of those who favour this, the UK ought to set its own policy so that we can raise quotas for our fishing fleets. This will be a short term commercial benefit but, as shown by the above, does not make a lot of sense long term.

Is there a more sympathetic basis for wanting more control at a UK level?


4 Answers 4


The most charitable answer would be: none whatsoever.

As things stand 80% of UK fish is sold in the EU -- this is about overall catch rather than UK water catch insofar as I'm aware, but it doesn't matter much either way. The UK basically eats imported fish (cod, salmon, haddock, prawn, tuna), and exports its own catches (langoustine, crab, mackerel). In 2010, imports were £1.33Bn and exports were £2.23Bn.

What more, UK fishermen sell the shipping rights of their own local waters.

There's just no way whatsoever to twist this into something positive. If they lose access to EU fishing waters, they basically lose their (presumably higher value) export catches and instead need to focus on their (hopefully high enough value) local water catches, and try to sell that to whoever those who they sold their rights to is currently selling their local caches to now. However one wants to spin this it doesn't look like a positive development.

  • 6
    Your answer seems to conflate export of fish and fishing quotas and fails to mention British access to EU waters. What the UK eats is beside the point. I think your conclusion still holds but you ought to clarify all that to actually answer the question.
    – Relaxed
    Apr 27, 2019 at 18:27
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    Also the UK has sold much of the quota it has to non nationals. unearthed.greenpeace.org/2018/10/11/…
    – Jontia
    Apr 27, 2019 at 18:28
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    And as a whole fishing contribute 0.05% of GDP, whilst summing all fishing related industries comes to only 0.12% of GDP. Even tripling this, which is way above the amount of fishing done in UK waters by non UK boats, is on a national scale fairly insignificant.
    – Jontia
    Apr 27, 2019 at 18:38
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    +1 to @Relaxed. A good analysis should include the current amount of fish accessible to UK fishermen, compared to the total amount of fish that could be sustainably extracted from UK waters alone. Apr 27, 2019 at 18:54
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    @DenisdeBernardy I fully agree. The link was meant to be in support of your answer. Sorry if this wasn't clear.
    – Jontia
    Apr 27, 2019 at 20:47

As you mentioned the EU does exert some control over fishing quotas in UK waters through the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). This policy has led to or at least some feel is has led to some of the following unfortunate situations involving strict fishing quotas

  • The wasting of fish by throwing them back into the water (when the quotas are exceeded)
  • The mass loss of jobs in the fishing business and associated damage to communities and so on
  • The assignment of fishing quotas to countries with no territorial waters thus many countries that would otherwise not have a fishing fleet are allowed to fish in what would have been UK waters instead of the above people who lost their livelihoods

So as with much of the EU question it's not about more or less or better or worse it's about the UK getting control over the UKs resources, borders, waters and so on.

With this said after the UK leaves the EU it is likely that fishing quotas will remain and much of the negative feeling about fishing quotas and management continue. It is even possible that stricter quotas will come into force to try and combat over fishing. This is more about short term politics than the rational and responsible management of global resources.

Much of the discussion around the CFP during the referendum and the ensuing years is/was around talking up the benefits of leaving the EU by blaming the EU for the problems in UK fishing in an attempt to gain leave votes. Whether the expected benefits turn out or not is a separate question and only time will tell, currently it's unclear whether or not we will leave the CFP (or the EU at all).

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    This is BS basically: theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/11/… "Claims by Ukip and others that the British fishing industry has suffered a calamitous decline “because of the CFP” are misleading. The big British fishing companies and the big boats are doing fine. They are now the most prosperous in Europe, with record revenues in 2017 and operating profits averaging 25%." (continues) Apr 28, 2019 at 2:22
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    "It is the small-scale skippers and coastal communities who are struggling with operating profits close to zero. This is due not to competition from European boats (with local exceptions in the Channel) but to the failure of UK governments to challenge the “eating up” of quotas by big fishing interests." I gave you an upvote nonetheless because it's the best argument one could bring, which is what the question asks. However, it would take far more UK (internal) reform than merely getting out of CFP to meet the goals you've set. Apr 28, 2019 at 2:23
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    Economically speaking, the "mass loss of jobs" is a good thing. It's just efficiency; you need less people to catch the same amount. True, there will be some transition problems as the newly unemployed need to be retrained as plumbers.
    – MSalters
    Apr 29, 2019 at 7:15

The UK could, in theory, claim their entire EEZ in case of a no-deal Brexit. (At a substantial cost in other areas of the economy.)

If we left the EU it wouldn’t necessarily mean that the situation would improve. The House of Commons Library has said that “many of the underlying issues that affect fisheries management would remain unchanged.”

The UK is signed up to the UN Law of the Sea Convention which allows countries to establish an Exclusive Economic Zone of up to 200 nautical miles from their coast. If the UK were to leave the EU we could have control of all fish which were within this zone. But, the same laws also require countries to ensure that fish stocks are conserved and that the allowable catch is specified and where necessary shared with other countries.

Countries such as Norway have this 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone in place, they also have agreements with a number of countries, and with the EU to allow fishing in those waters.

Of course, doing any other (trade) deal with the EU will probably involve relinquishing some of this exclusivity; see Norway.

The EU current system is limited to 100 miles of such exclusive claims:

The European Union’s Council of Ministers sets the tonnage of specific fish, or ‘Total Allowable Catch’ (TAC), which can be caught within EU waters and then divides this between each member state.

The quota each member state receives is based largely on how much they fished in those areas in the 1970s, before the Common Fisheries Policy came into effect.

This method of splitting up the stocks is designed to keep the levels of fishing in these areas relatively stable. However, it has been criticised in the UK, particularly as for much of the 1970s the UK fishing fleet spent much of its time in the waters around Iceland, which is not a member of the EU.

In 1976 the UK fleet was expelled from this area when fishing limits around Iceland were extended to 200 miles.

Other methods of dividing fish stocks have been proposed, but the House of Commons Library has said the system is unlikely to change.

It’s also impossible to determine what the policy on fishing would be if we left the EU and things wouldn’t necessarily be any better.

Currently EU member states are allowed to place limits on who can fish in their territorial waters, and up to 100 nautical miles fishing is restricted to those who traditionally fished there, but the legislation covering this expires in 2022. Whether or not this will be replaced by that date will be a matter for the politicians to determine.

Also unilateral setting of quotas are likely to lead to fishing wars:

The transnational nature of fisheries may limit the UK’s options after leaving the CFP.

Setting unilateral quotas would likely cause international disputes, such as the ‘mackerel wars’ of 2010-11, when negotiations between the European Commission and Iceland and the Faroe Islands broke down.

It is likely that the UK would have to continue negotiating its total allowable catch after Brexit, with it signed up to international agreements that require it to ensure “proper conservation” of fish stocks and to co-operate with regional or global organisations in achieving this, especially where stocks are shared.

The UK’s ability to restrict access to its waters may be limited by historical claims by European fishermen. In the past, tribunals and international courts have often ruled in favour of historic access rights to waters and against those looking to limit access.

In the mackerel wars, the EU embargoed mackerel exports from those islands in response to what they perceived to be excessive quotas.

As of 2017 the mackerel conflict was not really resolved with respect to Iceland:

A few years after the shift in mackerel distribution, the Coastal States attempted to include Iceland into their negotiations. Eventually, Iceland was granted [NEAFC] “observer status” in 2008 and Coastal State status in 2010. Nonetheless, until the time of writing, Iceland has not been involved in the Coastal States’ agreements on the total allowable catch (TAC) and quota allocations per country. The main reason for this failure is that a social and political dispute between the Coastal States developed which persists to this day. The conflict prevents collaboration in a joint management plan and subsequently sustainable management of the stock

On the other hand, the Faroe Islands did strike a deal that increased their mackerel quotas:

The parties have recently settled their dispute in respect of mackerel. On 12 March 2014, the Faroe Islands, Norway and EU concluded a joint arrangement for the conservation and management of the North East Atlantic mackerel stock for the next five years. The arrangement allocated 13% of the TAC between the parties (not including Russia and Iceland) to the Faroe Islands. This is a sizeable increase compared with the 5% that had been previously allocated to the Faroese, and the proportion is set to increase again next year.

The Faroe Islands had another ongoing dispute with the EU on herring at that time (2014), so the EU did not lift their sanctions right away. In both cases (mackerel and herring) Denmark (who represents the islands) took the case to the WTO and to the PCA.

Pending an agreement on herring, the WTO complaint and the UNCLOS Annex VII arbitration continue, and EU Regulation 793/2013, establishing sanctions against the Faroe Islands, remains in force.

According to the EU document that did lift the sanctions on the Faroe Islands later that year, the latter gave up on their herring claims.

Basically even without EU membership, the UK has to negotiate such quotas with other countries, e.g. in the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC).

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Fish stocks that reside in the international waters of the northeast Atlantic, like the mackerel, are multi-laterally managed by the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), where the contracting parties—the EU, Norway, Iceland, Russia, and Denmark (on behalf of the Faroe Islands and Greenland)—negotiate the division of fishing resources. When stocks frequent the national waters of a nation, defined as a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), that nation is considered a “Coastal State” for that stock and has the right to harvest it in their EEZ. The management of the straddling stocks in the northeast Atlantic is a two-tier process: Coastal States agree on shares and management plans before bringing the matter to NEAFC to cover fisheries in waters outside national jurisdiction (Vanderzwaag and Russell 2010). The regulatory area of NEAFC consists of the North-East Atlantic Ocean, the Barents and Norwegian Seas, and the Arctic Ocean (Fig. 1).

So whether the UK will be better off (in fisheries) comes down to the more general issue "we'll strike better (trade, fisheries etc.) deals on our own after Brexit."

Whether the UK can exploit all its fishing quotas by itself or grants them to pseudo-UK companies that are foreign owned is a somewhat different matter. But the benefit from the UK granting such quotas for foreign companies is not zero because of the fees, levies and royalties they could impose. (See Australia or Canada for example(s).) Of course the benefit for the national economy is greater if all the industry is nationally owned. Also, there's the issue of workforce nationality, which the UK could regulate in its favor even when in grants the quotas to foreign-owned companies. Supposedly 92% of the British fishermen voted for Brexit. Whether they did this because they think deals will be struck or fishing wars are easy to win... I don't know.

Iceland supposedly abandoned its EU membership application in part due to the mackerel war. Of course, for a country where the fishing industry is (now) central to their economy after the failure of their internationally-oriented financial sector... this is a little easier to comprehend.

During the 1976 cod war that Iceland mostly won, they had threatened to leave NATO. And they are talking again of quitting NATO, although this latter occurrence seems to be along the now entrenched lines on this matter in Icelandic politics.

Not surprising, the Conservative-leaning Telegraph has an article titled "After Iceland won the cod wars, their independent fisheries thrived. Britain can do the same"; it's penned by Owen Paterson, whom Wikipedia describes as "a leading supporter of Brexit".

The catch with a EU-UK fishing war is that

The UK exports 45% of its catch. 80% of that quantity goes to EU countries. For example 90% of fish landed in Ramsgate are sold in the Boulogne Fish Market - for 15% more in value than they would get at home.

In case of a fishing war (and a probable EU embargo), they'd have to find new markets.


Fishing policy in UK-EU negotiations has nothing to do with fishing directly, and everything to do with SNP vs. Scottish Conservatives fight over the support of 5 fishing baron families.

These criminals engaged in a conspiracy to under-represent the quantity of fish they were catching, and as a consequence damaged fish populations. This conspiracy is known as the "black fish scam". Thanks to EU policy, fishing quotas were subsequently reduced, to let the populations bounce back. This left the fishing barons looking for solutions that would allow them to stuff their pockets without thinking about sustainability. So far, ideas included the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit.

Scottish National Party and Scottish Conservatives have been fighting for their support and lending the issue prominence, while the barons have been playing the parties against one another.

Source: https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/its-time-give-scottish-millionaire-13479876

  • This post seems a little bit too Scotland-specific for this question. I don't think it's false per sé, but it's probably not "the strongest case that can be made".
    – gerrit
    Apr 29, 2019 at 8:41
  • This is more of a reply to the first sentence of the question, explaining why the issue has had visibility Apr 29, 2019 at 9:29

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