Fishing in Torbay Fishing in Torbay

E-zine sign-up

Published: The Brexit deal and UK fisheries - has reality matched the rhetoric?

One year on from the TCA, has the reality of UK fisheries quota shares matched the rhetoric from political leaders who committed to radically changed fisheries arrangements? A new paper, co-authored by ABPmer’s Suzannah Walmsley,(1) explores the issue.

With many in the UK fishing industry feeling the EU Common Fisheries Policy was biased against them, the 2016 UK vote to leave the EU relied heavily on using fishing as a totemic issue for the UK Government to get voter support. One of the issues that received the most attention was quota shares, reflecting the many British fishers who felt that the UK received a poor deal. But did this politicising of the issue deliver on industry expectations?

What promises were made?

The UK Government sought to “Move away from relative stability towards a more scientific method for future Total Allowable Catch (TAC) shares”, and specifically “that future fishing opportunities should be based on the principle of zonal attachment”.

Another key priority was that quota shares should be set in annual negotiations rather than as part of the trade deal, with UK Fisheries Minister George Eustice referring to a trade deal and a fisheries agreement as “two separate things”. UK Government sources did not quantify what changes in quota shares could be expected as a result of zonal attachment. Minister Eustice was at times hesitant to specifically promise that Brexit would lead to higher quotas, but did point to specific species as likely to increase, including cod, haddock and plaice.

On many occasions, Minister Eustice gave relatively specific figures on the difference between what the UK caught in EU waters and vice versa. In one instance, this was reported as “British fishermen will catch hundreds of thousands of tonnes after Brexit, minister says”.

What is the reality?

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) came into force on 1 January 2021, to govern relations between the EU and UK following the end of the Brexit transition period. Fisheries is included within Part Two (trade, transport, fisheries and other arrangements), with further detail in four appendices.

The quota shares achieved for the UK through the TCA fall far short of zonal attachment estimates (Figure 1). Based on estimates for 24 stocks, the UK quota shares post-Brexit represent a shortfall of 229,000 tonnes and £281 million.

Value of UK quota based on 2025 quota shares under the TCA,  and based on zonal attachment estimates for UK waters

Figure 1: Value of UK quota based on 2025 quota shares under the TCA, and based on zonal attachment estimates for UK waters (click to enlarge)

Notably, the three stocks for which the UK achieved the greatest gain in quota value (western mackerel, North Sea herring and North Sea sole) are also the three stocks for which the amount achieved fell furthest short from the zonal attachment estimates. This indicates that rather than these quotas being especially prioritised by the UK in negotiations, they are three large quotas where the UK had a strong case for an increased share based on zonal attachment.

Since the publication of the TCA, the NFFO published calculations that analysed the change in quota, concluding that “the majority of the UK fleet received no post Brexit gains. In fact, they lost £79.5m” per annum.

Reception and key lessons

In the final part of our paper, we reflect upon the gap between rhetoric and reality, and how this shortcoming has been received by key stakeholders. We then draw attention to some key lessons from the episode. These include the risks of downplaying the realities of international policy negotiations, the risks of using rhetoric to mobilise public opinion and the risks of marginalising cautionary voices. Failing to acknowledge these risks can contribute to a damaging erosion of trust and make future collaboration between stakeholders more difficult in the future.

Read the full paper at the SpringerLink website, as published in the Maritime Studies journal

Prepared by Suzannah Walmsley, ABPmer fisheries and aquaculture specialist


(1)^A collaboration between University of York, New Economics Foundation, University of Lincoln and ABPmer

ABPmer supports policy-makers, regulators and the fisheries and aquaculture industry on marine environmental policy matters, assessment and management, including interactions between fisheries, marine protected areas (MPAs) and other marine developments.