Fishing vessel Fishing vessel

E-zine sign-up

Blueprint for UK fisheries post-Brexit

With the UK poised to leave the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and become an independent coastal state under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), increasing attention is being paid to the international arrangements for fisheries management and access. We explore the Government's White Paper.on the future of fisheries.

The Government has now published its long-awaited White Paper on the future of fisheries. ‘Sustainable fisheries for future generations’ sets out the plan for fisheries beyond the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and Brexit.

Much of what it contains is not really a surprise, if you have been following the discussions and various Ministerial comments over the last two years.  But the clear statements that the UK will be an independent coastal state, control access to its own waters and, seek a redistribution of quota allocations between the UK and EU, will be welcomed by many in the UK. 

However, as with all things related to Brexit, nothing can be said to be clear until negotiations with the EU are completed and concern will remain as to whether the UK can maintain its position through the EU exit negotiations.

International relations

The starting point of the White Paper is that the UK will become an independent coastal state with the right to control and manage access to fish in UK waters out to the 200nm limit or the median line — access to UK waters will be ‘on our terms, under our control and for the benefit of UK fishermen’.

We are pleased to see that the UK will apply to be a member of Regional Fisheries Management Organisations including the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), and take part in international negotiations on management of and access to internationally shared stocks such as herring and mackerel.

The text alludes to ‘longer term sustainable approaches in co-operation with the EU and other countries’ which may relate to reforming the agreements on shared stocks to be more robust to pressures that might otherwise affect the implementation of the agreements.

Our recent report on international governance arrangements in the North East Atlantic region sets out recommendations for improving the resilience of international agreements such as these.

UK-EU relations

Division of fishing opportunities, Relative Stability and zonal attachment 

The document sets out the intention to move away from Relative Stability quota shares (the basis for the division of quota under the CFP, based on historical recorded catches in 1973-1978, and under which many UK fishermen feel they get a raw deal) towards ‘a fairer and more scientific method for future TAC shares as a condition of future access’.

This implies shares that better reflect the resources in UK waters. This is an important step in ensuring the UK increases the benefits it receives from the resources in its waters, and is seen by many as a key ‘Brexit’ test.

A series of maps and analyses are presented in the White Paper that set out the UK’s current quota share for various stocks, and the shares based on three different ‘zonal attachment’-type criteria.

The UK would get more quota under zonal attachment than Relative Stability, between 1.2 and 8 times more, depending on the stock. However, only a selection of stocks are shown in the document, presumably those that highlight most clearly the disparity between the current and potential allocations.

Surprisingly, Channel cod is not there — this is often cited as one where the UK gets a raw deal, with only 9% of the quota, whilst France gets 84%. And there is not yet any consideration of the location of spawning and nursery grounds, or the temporal distribution of fish between different zones.


The White Paper separates the issue of trade from fisheries, with access to markets to be agreed as part of the future economic partnership with the EU. It highlights the ambition for a ‘deep and special partnership’ with the EU, the intention for continuity in existing trade relationships (e.g. the EU’s existing Free Trade Agreements) and preferential arrangements (such as countries covered by the Generalised System of Preferences, and Cotonou Agreement), as well as the Brexit objective of developing new global markets for the UK.

In contrast, the EU has signalled its intention to link fisheries access to market access so this will be a key issue in negotiations.

Between the EU and Norway, trade and fisheries are covered in separate agreements, but there is no doubt that there are linkages between Norway’s independence in fisheries matters and the exclusion of fish and fishery products from the tariff-free arrangements of the European Economic Area agreement.

ABPmer recently modelled a range of scenarios to look at the potential impacts of changes to quota and trade arrangements with the EU and rest of the world . While the imposition of tariffs and increase in non-tariff barriers will have negative impacts on the UK, there is also potential for additional quota to increase UK production and exports.

Domestic issues

Powers to set fishing opportunities

The new Fisheries Act will establish powers to set fishing opportunities. These are expected to be principally in terms of quota, but the possibility of a days-at-sea effort-based system is left open. This has been long argued for by the Fishing for Leave campaign, but is considered second-rate and subject to the evils of effort creep by many fisheries scientists and managers.

However, the White Paper makes it clear that this would be related only to low impact inshore fisheries (which will be redefined from the current under-10m category) and subject to trials and testing. It will be interesting to see if it proves a workable option for inshore mixed fisheries and will require appropriate safeguards to ensure sustainability.

Allocation of fishing opportunities

Allocation of any ‘additional’ fishing opportunities from the negotiation of zonal attachment quota shares are proposed to be allocated on a different basis from the existing Fixed Quota Allocation (FQA) units and government will ‘begin a conversation’ about how this might be done. The separation from the FQA system is sensible – it avoids the potential devaluation of existing quota holdings, whilst enabling the additional quota to address specific issues.

The White Paper mentions the possible use of: zonal attachment for allocation of quota between UK Devolved Administrations; a quota reserve to be managed and allocated by the MMO (with the criteria for allocation to be agreed); tendering or auctioning of quota; as well as ways to address chokes from the discard ban and incentivise the reduction of discards.

Recreational angling

There are hints that recreational anglers will need to become more accountable within the overall quota system, with the potential allocation of some fishing opportunities specifically to recreational angling, and future consideration of how recreational angling can be further integrated within the new fisheries framework ‘recognising the societal benefits of this activity and the impacts on some stocks’. Given that recreational angling can result in significant levels of mortality of some stocks, it is a positive move to ensure their catches are properly accounted for against quota and will improve stock assessment advice and sustainability.

UK framework, devolution

The White Paper aims to maintain the overall coherence of UK fisheries policy and the principle of equal access to UK vessels throughout UK waters. It is expected that there will be more powers for Devolved Administrations and Defra is working with the Devolved Administrations on which areas will require a common UK framework.

Sustainability principles

Management of fisheries in accordance with Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) will be maintained, although with flexibilities for mixed fisheries. The commitment to ending discards is also reiterated in the document. The need for scientific evidence to guide decisions is highlighted, and the potential for increased monitoring on fishing vessels (including VMS, remote electronic monitoring and CCTV) is included. It recognises the need for rapid and responsive regulation, something that has been lacking from the CFP. It also introduces the potential for the regulation of fishing activities outside of MPAs for environmental (rather than fisheries management) purposes in English waters, such as is already being considered in Scottish inshore waters for management of priority marine features.

Economic incentives and cost recovery

The White Paper highlights the vision of the ‘commercial fishing industry and the recreational sector working in closer partnership with government while making a greater financial contribution’ and introduces the potential for the use of economic incentives and cost recovery mechanisms. For example, a potential charge for any over-quota landings to discourage catches in excess of quota; and the provision of powers to improve MMO’s cost recovery.

The mention of industry having to contribute to the costs of fisheries management never goes down well with the catching sector, but if fisheries are well managed and generating profits (which they should!) then it is right that some of the benefits or ‘resource rent’ from these renewable natural resources contributes to the effective management of those resources from which the industry benefits. The challenge will be the design of the system, to ensure the correct incentives are in place, that incentives are not created for misreporting, and to balance the contribution made by the industry with the revenue obtained, whilst also recognising the other contributions that the industry makes to research, enforcement, food security and supply chains.

The White Paper does not commit to a replacement for the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), but says ‘whether and how to replace’ it will be considered, and a power to replace, modernise and broaden the existing grant-making powers will be brought in to the new Fisheries Act.

The indication is that foreign ownership of UK-flagged vessels will continue, but the economic link conditions are under review to ensure that UK registered vessels provide genuine economic benefits to the UK.

What it doesn’t say

A reallocation of the current quota distribution arrangements for existing quota is pretty much ruled out, and it stands to be seen what the allocation of ‘additional’ quota will mean in practice – in terms of species, areas and fleets – and whether the additional quota available will be sufficient to relieve chokes and address quota shortages in some fleet sectors. The call for the use of ‘social and economic criteria’ by many NGOs is not addressed specifically, although the potential for this is left open through the new ways to allocate additional quota.

Limits on fleet capacity and how fleet capacity will be managed are not addressed. When countries join the EU they sign up to fleet capacity ceilings, but this will no longer apply once the UK leaves the CFP. With a long-awaited Brexit ‘windfall’ of additional quota, will the UK government allow the fishing fleet to expand to take up the additional opportunities? The industry has gone through several decades of painful decommissioning and consolidation to bring the size of the fleet into line with the available fishing opportunities. Any relaxation of fleet capacity ceilings needs to avoid Oopening up a new cycle of expansion, overfishing and decommissioning.

The White Paper presents a comprehensive and ambitious vision for the future of UK fisheries, although there are still various details to be resolved internally — and the obvious question of the outcome of the negotiations with the EU, in which fish will be just one of the issues on the table.

Defra is looking for views on the initial outline approach in the White Paper. Respondents are encouraged to provide not just their opinions but also the supporting facts and reasoning to inform the evidence base for the development of final proposals.

Respondents do not have to answer all the questions and so can choose those of specific interest.

Respond via the DEFRA Consultation website

Send feedback via email

Response deadline: 12 September 2018.

Image courtesy Andrew Pearson