Last month saw the ‘future relationship’ talks between the UK and the EU resume after a pandemic hiatus. Fisheries management was cited by both Michael Gove and Michel Barnier as a major sticking point. Although conflicts between democracies over fisheries are surprisingly frequent, this one is at the centre of the constitutional and economic rupture that is Brexit, meaning the stakes are even higher. The side-lined industry and totemic grievance of the Leave campaign is now a spanner in the works for the entire future relationship negotiations, increasing the chance of no agreement being reached at all.
The dispute over fishing rights is a perfect storm
The disagreement stems from the fact that the UK shares almost all its fish stocks with EU member states. This presents two major stumbling blocks in the negotiations: access to waters and the share of fishing rights. The EU wants access to the UK’s waters based on existing fishing rights and the UK wants exclusive control over access. The EU and UK also have differing approaches to allocating fishing rights.
To put it simply, the UK is advocating for fishing rights for a particular stock to be allocated to the country in whose waters the stock is found (aka ‘zonal attachment’), while the EU is pushing for rights for stocks to be given to countries who have historically fished them (aka ‘relative stability’).
In a stable world, these two approaches would see a consistent outcome, but climate breakdown is causing dramatic increases in sea temperature and squeezing fish stocks to the poles in the search for cooler waters. This means characteristic European stocks are migrating northwards. For example squid, popular in Spain, is now increasingly prominent in UK waters, creating an international barrier with highly charged political dimensions between a nation and one of its delicacies. Future northwards migration of fish stocks through European waters is a certainty and is unlikely to sit comfortably with our patchwork of borders and consumer preferences.
This raises the question of how the EU and UK can reach an agreement, which is so vital for the sustainability of shared fish stocks. The UK wants to control access to its waters while retaining full access to EU export markets. British people tend not to eat British fish: up to 80% of the UK catch is exported, a majority into the EU. Agreeing to zonal attachment would see prosperity and international leverage slip through the fingers of member states as stocks migrate over time, whereas the UK government sees relative stability as an unconscionable loss of sovereignty and the squandering of a Brexit benefit. Add in agitated domestic industries who were promised opposing outcomes and it’s a perfect storm.
The negotiations are a chance to end overfishing
This puts even the existence of a fisheries agreement in doubt, as both sides could please domestic audiences by walking away and awarding their fleets as much as they can catch. Both parties have a terrible record of overfishing even when they do agree. New analysis shows that, over the past 20 years, member states agreed to fish above the scientifically recommended levels in 60 per cent of cases. Business as usual saw North Sea cod stocks collapse once again last year. Unilateralism in North Sea quota setting would further risk the collapse of stocks and cause a spike in seabird, whale, and dolphin deaths, according to recent research.
Governments may be tempted to instigate a fishing ‘bonanza’ but they cannot escape the inevitable long term consequences of doing so. Smart governments would recognise their natural limits: that there are only so many fish in the sea and that the practice of fishing itself has a real world impact on ecosystems and the climate, contributing to irreversible damage to our natural support systems. Reaching an agreement on fisheries is, therefore, necessary to protect and restore this precious shared resource and the habitats it depends on.
The Greener UK coalition of the UK’s leading environmental NGOs has called for both parties to set shared fishing limits based on sustainable common standards and roll out vessel monitoring systems to ensure compliance. In addition, relevant data for marine management should be openly shared between parties and trade in fisheries produce must be dependent on compliance with agreed measures.
Promisingly, both sides have indicated they share at least part of this vision, but the proof will be in the final text of the agreement and subsequent enforcement. Any trade-offs with other sectors or brinkmanship over national shares of catches must be done within the above confines. By banking sustainability measures now, we can reap the benefits of a prosperous fishing industry long into the future while restoring oceanic life. The parties have until 1 July to settle their differences, barring a transition period extension.