In following the ongoing Brexit negotiations, I notice that fishing rights in UK waters is a sticking point, e.g.

But the two sides have yet to narrow gaps on two of the thorniest issues: fishing rights in British waters and the level playing field.

An EU official told Reuters the bloc had rejected Britain’s offer of phased access to its waters over three years by EU fishing vessels and the sides were "an ocean apart" on the issue.


This is surprising, because there is an obvious solution: both sides agree to only fish in their territorial waters.

What is wrong with this obvious solution?

  • 2
    That sounds like a wonderful idea that the EU would instantly reject and the UK would instantly accept.
    – Valorum
    Dec 19, 2020 at 22:20
  • The issue is not over "territorial waters", which only extend about 3 or 5 miles from the shore. It concerns internationally recognised fishing zones, which in the UK's case, because of its geographical position, are far larger than those of most EU countries. Also the north Atlantic, between Scotland and Iceland are very rich fishing grounds. Placing its zones at the disposal of the EU was a significant contribution on Britain's part to negotiations on joining the EU - since in some EU countries, primary industries like fishing and agriculture, are a powerful lobby in government.
    – WS2
    Dec 20, 2020 at 11:20
  • 2
    But it is quite correct that fishing only represents 0.1% of the UK's GDP. And it is utterly absurd that fishing should have such political importance. But it illustrates the ridiculous aspect of Brexit, which is fundamentally driven by ignorance, and the need to sell cheap newspapers, based on jingoistic messages, in an internet age.
    – WS2
    Dec 20, 2020 at 11:26

6 Answers 6


A bunch of issues:

  • Under EU rules, there could be foreign-owned ships registered under the UK flag. UK fishermen sold their quotas in the 1990s, which was legal back then. These rights should not simply be expropriated without fair compensation.
  • While the UK was in the EU, ships from the EU27 could fish in UK waters and fish could be sold all across the EU27 and UK. Now the UK wants an agreement which lets them sell the fish in the EU27, without prohibitive tariff barriers, and the EU27 wants to continue fishing in the UK EEZ.
  • Fish migrate. Many are born in one EEZ and caught in another. It is not as if they live in just one nation's waters. Yet fish should not be caught before they are fully mature. Coordination and quotas are necessary.

To me it looks as if the UK has some case to "get their fishing back," but it isn't all that clear-cut. What can be done? Grandfathering the existing ships? Quota buybacks? Some compromise?

  • 4
    Note that the UK wants to force foreign companies (that its fishermen sold their quotas to) to either employ majority British workers or land a majority of their catch in British ports. The plan to do this with a new law bbc.com/news/52420116 So it's "soft nationalization" of sorts, on top the EU quotas abolition. Dec 17, 2020 at 9:33
  • 55
    "Fish migrate". As long as UK was part of the EU, this was not true migration but movement. Dec 17, 2020 at 11:43
  • 10
    @rexkogitans, I'm not a native speaker but I believe that migration is the appropriate term when spawning, feeding, and nursery grounds differ.
    – o.m.
    Dec 17, 2020 at 11:46
  • 44
    @o.m. it looks like a joke about another brexit issue - people moving/migrating. In this context, people "move" between EU member states and "migrate" between EU and non-member states.
    – fraxinus
    Dec 17, 2020 at 11:47
  • 9
    @rexkogitans Fair point, but this is a non-issue if the fish are carrying the right papers. Dec 17, 2020 at 20:41

BBC has a pretty good article on this.

2 key points:

This is particularly important, because most of the fish landed by UK fishermen is exported (while most of the fish eaten in the UK is imported).

And of all those exported fish, roughly three quarters are sold within the EU. Some parts of the industry - such as shellfish - are totally dependent on such exports and would collapse if they were suddenly faced with tariffs or taxes on their products.

So the UK fishermen want to have their waters to themselves but access to the EU market for their catch.


It's an argument complicated by the fact that parts of the British quota have been sold off by British skippers to boats based elsewhere in the EU.

In England, for example, more than half the quota is in foreign hands.

Overall, more than 60% of the tonnage landed from English waters is caught by foreign boats.

But because UK waters are so important, and so bountiful, the EU is under huge pressure from its fishing communities to maintain as much of the status quo as possible.

The last bit is significant. Fishermen have much the same lobbying pressure on governments as farmers do. French fishermen for one are always quick with disruptive action to get their way, whether it's about fuel subsidies or stopping regulations to prevent overfishing.

No European government is going to want be seen to "sell out" its fishing industry, regardless of how much economic damage it causes elsewhere.

  • 4
    This is probably the best answer so far; i.e. this is a lot more about immediate preservation of jobs than it is about fish, which would be traded anyway. See also my comments under o.m.'s answer that strengthen this point (regarding what the UK plans to do with the "quota hopping" companies). However, the last line is probably overselling this. Macron has a lot more to lose in terms of fishermen voters than some other EU governments. reuters.com/article/us-britain-eu-france-exclusive/… Dec 18, 2020 at 13:43
  • Additionally, even Norway is worried about the immediate disruption and has threatened to cancel fishing access for both the UK and the EU. thelocal.no/20201211/… Dec 18, 2020 at 13:53
  • 4
    @Fizz, taking back the (previously legal) sale of quotas could also be seen as nationalising foreign investments, which would be a bad precedent no matter how minor. So it becomes a matter of principle, not just pride.
    – o.m.
    Dec 18, 2020 at 13:53
  • @Fizz I just gave France as an example because fishery-related protests were often in the news while I lived there. I believe Spain also has a pretty vocal fisheries lobby. Thing is, as far I understand, the trade deal needs unanimous approval so an unwanted outcome - no deal - isn't impossible. Canada's deal came down to the wire wrt to some either Wallon or Flemish cows, IIRC. A lot more limited constituency than here. And without a disincentive to the EU to offer too sweet a deal or a UK PM clamoring to stand up for Britannia. I kinda figure cooler heads will prevail, but who knows? Dec 19, 2020 at 2:40

Because the UKs Exclusive Economic Zone covers most of the decent fishing grounds in and around the North Sea, and north of Ireland, making it a much sought after right to fish in this area.

Without access to it, EU fishing rights are significantly reduced, hugely impacting its fishing industry which currently fish these waters - EU fishing boats would be restricted to international waters or EU countries exclusive economic zones, which are either significantly lower yield than the current fishing grounds, or much much further away.

  • 1
    Any idea why there's more fish in the UK's EEU?
    – Allure
    Dec 17, 2020 at 5:41
  • 8
    @Allure Im not a wildlife expert, so no idea. But most of the EUs territorial waters are coastal, while a huge chunk of the UKs is sea or ocean based because of its position and outlying islands, and that probably has a lot to do with it.
    – user16741
    Dec 17, 2020 at 5:50
  • 7
    @Allure I would expect it also depends in part on how the UK is one of the most distinctive locations on the globe as regards tides and currents. The Atlantic gulf stream currents basically drive straight up to Britain/Ireland and then splits around and envelopes it. This greatly assists the transportation of life-sustaining nutrients and plankton. Ocean life relies heavily on currents, and regions of the ocean with essentially no currents are nutrient poor and have little to no life. Those idyllic crystal clear blue Caribbean waters? The result of no nutrients, no life. Dec 17, 2020 at 7:08
  • 20
    Historical access is also a point of contention: these high yield fishing fields have been fished by fishermen in what is now France, Belgium and The Netherlands for longer than either of the 4 involved countries exist in its current form. Historic appointments of exclusivity regarding these waters has always come with multi-way compromises. The "obvious solution" as given by an outsider only shows ignorance of these facts.
    – DonFusili
    Dec 17, 2020 at 10:10
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    @Jontia Profit margins are almost irrelevant, most of European natural fishing is strategic. If all of the North Sea fishermen suddenly stopped fishing by themselves, the EU would most likely just lower quotas, not transfer them to other regions. Throwing large communities in three (four, if you count Denmark) countries in disarray because it makes the excel sheet fit is an actual problem. Mainly because >50 year old people that didn't finish high school and haven't done anything else in their lives than fish care surprisingly little about things like EU-UK dispute arbitration.
    – DonFusili
    Dec 17, 2020 at 11:05

It’s not a symmetrical situation. The EU wants to fish in UK waters, and doesn’t need market access to the UK for its fish. The UK wants market access to the EU, but doesn’t need to fish in EU waters. The obvious deal is to trade UK access to EU markets for EU access to UK waters, but the UK is resisting that.


Except for salmon, mackerel and cod*, the British don't eat fish or shellfish, the result being that at present most of the fish the UK catches is exported (with 75% of exports going to the EU, and exports to the EU exceeding those from it by 60%**) and most of the fish eaten in the UK is imported. (UK sea fisheries statistics 2019).

It's probably true that the extent to which British waters are fished by other EU nations is unbalanced but nevertheless, the situation the UK has created for itself is bonkers. The UK fishing industry is simply too large to sustain itself (a problem faced, one suspects, by many countries with large coastlines relative to land mass and population), unless it radically revises its approach to sustainable fishing - a task it's even less likely to be able to undertake without considered cooperation from its neighbours.

Incidentally, the UK fishing industry contributes one half of one percent to GDP - a figure comparable with other coastal nations of similar economic standing, so take from that that you will.

* They also eat Tuna (in salads and sandwiches with sweetcorn, would you believe), but you don't generally catch Tuna in the North Atlantic

** Thanks to @Jontia for providing a source in comments.

  • 8
    This is a rant, not an answer. You should provide a source that the UK is not interested in their fish and that therefore the UK wants to sell fish in the EU instead, but that that requires a trade deal. So while they could agree to fish in their own territory it doesn't solve the fishing dispute. At least I think that's the point you're trying to make, I'm not sure.
    – nwp
    Dec 17, 2020 at 11:58
  • 4
    As a Brit, I'd like to see some citations for that first paragraph (as in, links to the sites where you found that information). Most fish-and-chips shops here (of which I can assure you there are thousands) will offer you multiple alternatives to cod.
    – F1Krazy
    Dec 17, 2020 at 12:28
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    @F1Krazy exports vs imports to and from EU only. Exports exceed imports by 100,000 tonnes. And it seems pretty clear that the UK doesn't eat what it can catch. Though it's confused with many fish being both imported and exported.
    – Jontia
    Dec 17, 2020 at 13:21
  • 2
    Haddock is definitely not rebadged cod. Pollock, maybe, but not the rarer and more expensive cod.
    – pjc50
    Dec 17, 2020 at 17:11
  • 3
    Haddock has a pretty distinctive taste and texture. Dec 17, 2020 at 18:43

Lots of good answers already but one basic fact needs to be highlighted: EU fisheries (and not only French fisheries) depend on access to British waters. It's that simple and it's the problem with “agree[ing] to only fish in their territorial waters”.

You can make a lot of arguments based on sovereignty, morality, historical precedents, quota/sales purchases, ressource management, fish migration, tie fishing to market access for fish, the small size of the sector (for both sides), compare fisheries with other areas of negotiation, haggle over the duration of the transition period, argue that 25% is a large gain compared to the statu quo or that 60% is well short of the 100% the UK is entitled to, etc. etc. etc. but at the end of the day retreating to the EU's territorial waters (or its EEZ) will create a huge disruption and devastate an entire industry.

From the EU perspective, losing access is a problem (not an obvious solution) and any (sovereign) country would use whatever leverage they have to prevent that or expect significant benefits in return from abandoning that leverage (and that's true even before getting into the symbolic and political weight fishermen can have in some countries).

  • You probably need "quota sales/purchases" in that list of arguments. It seems a fairly key one, although one that could be solved by liberal applications of cash if the UK were so inclined.
    – Jontia
    Dec 21, 2020 at 9:19
  • @Jontia Yes, probably, I added it, thanks. But I guess my point is that the EU stands to lose a lot in this area and would try to get some cash/compensation and long sunset period no matter how convincing this or that argument seems to people on either side. If the EU didn't have solid arguments based on quota purchases, ressource management, or market access for fish, it would just invent bad ones and push for some compensation anyway, even if that means grasping at straws.
    – Relaxed
    Dec 21, 2020 at 9:28
  • "but at the end of the day retreating to the EU's territorial waters (or its EEZ) will create a huge disruption and devastate an entire industry." => is this because most fish comes from the UK EEZ? Jan 3, 2021 at 0:22
  • @JonathanReez Not necessarily most fish but at least a large enough quantity of fish (for some species, at a key point in their lifecycle) to matter. My main point is larger though: It will be a huge disruption because the industry evolved that way over a long time.
    – Relaxed
    Jan 3, 2021 at 9:55

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