Fishing was one of the final sticking points in the post-Brexit trade talks. While fishing is a tiny part of the economy on both sides of the Channel, it carries big political weight.
Regaining control over UK waters was a big part of the Leave campaign in 2016 but some activists have already criticised what is in the deal.
What’s the deal in a nutshell?
- EU boats will continue to fish in UK waters for some years to come
- But UK fishing boats will get a greater share of the fish from UK waters
- That shift in the share will be phased in over five and a half years
- After that, there’ll be annual negotiations to decide how the catch is shared out between the UK and EU
- The UK would have the right to completely exclude EU boats after 2026
- But the EU could respond with taxes on exports of British fish to the EU
What’s the detail on fishing?
The deal has not yet been published but the BBC has obtained a full copy of the text which runs to more than 1,200 pages.
On fishing, both sides have agreed that 25% of EU boats’ fishing rights in UK waters will be transferred to the UK fishing fleet, over a period of five-and-a-half years.
This is known as the “transition period” (giving EU fleets time to get used to the new fishing relationship). The EU wanted it to be longer, the UK wanted it shorter – it looks like they’ve met somewhere in the middle, with an end date of 30 June 2026.
According to the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, which has been briefed on the matter by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, EU fishing quota in UK waters will be reduced by 15% in the first year and 2.5 percentage points each year after.
By June 2026, it’s estimated that UK boats will have access to an extra £145m of fishing quota every year. In 2019, British vessels caught 502,000 tonnes of fish, worth around £850m, inside UK waters.
The document also sets out details of how each species of fish – caught in UK waters – will be shared out between the UK and the EU during the transition.
On North Sea cod, for example, in 2021 – the EU is allocated a 47.03% share, the UK 52.97.
By 2026, this share changes to EU 43%, UK 57%.
What happens then?
The document says after the end of the transition period in 2026 there will be annual talks to set the amount EU fishing boats can catch in UK waters (and vice versa).
The UK would then have the right to completely withdraw EU boats’ access to UK waters. But the EU could then impose tariffs (taxes) on fish exports from the UK.
The document goes into a lot of detail about the measures to compensate one side if the other withdraws or reduces access to its waters. As well as tariffs it includes other “remedial measures” such as suspending access to waters. Tariffs could even be extended to other goods but it would have to be in proportion to the economic impact of the fishing breach.
There will be an arbitration system, though, to try to resolve fishing disputes.
How did the old fishing system work?
As part of its membership of the EU, the UK was subject to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
The CFP, which was signed in 1970, means every fishing fleet from EU member states has equal access to European waters.
Ordinarily, each country would control access to their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which stretches up to 200 nautical miles from the coast, or to a maritime halfway point between neighbouring countries.
In the EU, fishing rights are negotiated annually by ministers from each member state, who gather for marathon talks every December to haggle over the volume of fish that can be caught from each species.
National quotas are then divided up using historical data going back to the 1970s, when the UK fishing industry says it got a bad deal.
Access to waters v access to markets
At present, the UK fishing fleet has the right to catch just under half of the annual fishing quota in UK waters. The EU-27 fleet has access to about a third of the annual catch and the remainder is in the hands of boats from Norway and the Faroe Islands.
Danish, Dutch and French fishing vessels are particularly dependent on fish caught in UK waters – each of them catch more than 100,000 tonnes of the UK’s fish every year.
UK vessels caught under 100,000 tonnes of fish, worth roughly £106m, from EU waters in 2019.
The issue is complicated by the fact that parts of the UK fishing quota have been sold off by skippers to British-flagged boats owned by foreign companies, mainly based in the EU.
In England, for example, more than half the quota is under foreign ownership. That amounts to £160m or 130,000 tonnes a year, according to BBC research.
UK fishermen also sell a large proportion of their catch to the EU.
In 2019, the UK fishing industry exported more than 333,000 tonnes of fish to the EU. That accounts for nearly half of the total catch of the UK fishing fleet and roughly three quarters of total fish exports from the UK.
Some parts of the industry – such as shellfish – are totally dependent on such exports.
A tiny fraction of the economy
But it’s worth remembering that fishing is only a tiny fraction of the overall economy both in the UK (about 0.02% in 2019) and in the EU (some landlocked countries have no fishing fleets at all).
According to the Office for National Statistics, fishing was worth £437m to the UK economy in 2019. By comparison, the financial services industry was worth £126bn.
In many coastal communities though, fishing is a major source of employment – responsible for thousands of jobs.