Brexit without an EU-UK fisheries agreement would bring great risk, campaigners warn

Allowing the United Kingdom and the European Union to part ways at the end of this year without an agreement on fisheries in place post-Brexit would open the door to overfishing and pose a serious risk to many fish stocks and marine ecosystems, campaign groups have warned.

On 8 September, the E.U. and U.K. began a new round of post-Brexit trade deal negotiations, with fisheries and fishing rights again expected to take center stage as one of the main obstacles to a broader deal.

Recognizing that both parties have been poles apart throughout previous fisheries talks and that significant progress needs to be made, Oceana, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and ClientEarth convened a briefing, which cautioned that amid discussions on access to waters, quota shares, and market implications, there’s a tendency for environmental sustainability aspects to be neglected. 

Following the last round of negotiations in August, E.U. Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier stated that “no progress had been made whatsoever” on the issues that matter with regards to fisheries. Oceana Senior Director of Advocacy in Europe Vera Coelho also stressed that an agreement between the two parties is urgently needed to provide the foundation for long-term sustainable management, and because decisions must be made very soon regarding fishing limits for next year.

Coelho said that an E.U.-U.K. agreement should ensure an end to overfishing and that all fish populations are restored to healthy levels. Furthermore, catches should be limited to sustainable levels, taking ecosystem considerations into account, with fisheries management aligned with the best available science. The deal should also have strong governance provisions, ensuring that there is transparency in the way that decisions are made.

Currently, however, there are a lot of unresolved questions, she said.

“We still don’t know who can fish where; how much can be fished and by whom; and there are also market access and regulatory issues. But while all of these issues are important, from an environmental point of view, it’s highly concerning that we are just over 100 days away from the end of the transition period and there’s still no clarity on some fundamental issues when it comes to fisheries management,” Coelho said. “Questions such as how much can we fish overall, and how do we come to those decisions on how much can we fish, are still very much up in the air. No one really knows what rules will apply to fishing as of 1 January, 2021.”

From an economic perspective, fisheries is a very small part of the U.K. economy, accounting for 0.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and employing a modest 12,000 people, but it has become a “totemic issue” and a “symbol of taking back control,” which has been weighing very heavily in the negotiations, Coelho noted.

“From our point of view, fishing is important for a very different reason. It remains the biggest impact on the marine ecosystem and so it’s important that fishing activities by both parties remains regulated in a way that secures the sustainability of the sector itself, but also very importantly, the fish populations and the food webs and ecosystems that they underpin,” she said.

The Pew Charitable Trusts Project Director Andrew Clayton said the U.K.’s departure from the E.U. on 31 December would bring considerable change to the management of Northeast Atlantic fish stocks, as many fishing grounds that had been managed under the EU’s common fisheries policy would become managed within the U.K. exclusive economic zone. As such, the country will no longer take part in the annual Agrifish Council meetings, but instead negotiate separately with the E.U. and other coastal states with which it shares stocks.

Any new joint management framework needs to contain sustainability safeguards, so that parties setting unilateral limits do not exceed the overall scientific advice and therefore overfish the stocks, Clayton said.

“We know that the negotiators are under pressure to do a deal as soon as possible. October has been mentioned as a date that would allow [U.K. and E.U. parliamentary] ratification, and fisheries is just a small part of that wider deal, but there is urgency on the fisheries aspect because of the management of 2021. This is the time of year when fisheries managers set catch limits for the following year. These decisions need to be made in the coming weeks and that is going to be quite a crunch for the diplomats involved. Transparency is likely to be the thing that is risked if these decisions are all made at the same time as part of the long-term deal – it will be very difficult to follow the process and the democratic mandate of those negotiators," Clayton said. “There are risks regardless of what kind of deal is done. But everyone loses out if sustainability is put at risk."

At present, the post-Brexit U.K. Fisheries Bill does not contain a commitment to ensure that fishing limits are not set above sustainable levels. There is also no commitment to the sustainable management of shared stocks, which would include the 100-plus stocks shared with the E.U., according to ClientEarth U.K. Environment Lawyer Sarah Denman.

“There are several welcome additions to the Fisheries Bill, but it does fall short of the government’s promise of sustainable fisheries. What it does is represent a regression in environmental standards from the [common fisheries policy]. In particular, it gives U.K. authorities discretion to permit overfishing and to also balance scientific advice against socio-economic considerations. In this context, it’s more important than ever that we ensure the U.K.-E.U. agreement is as strong as possible – securing the sustainable management of shared stocks,” Denman said. “There is a huge amount at stake here. There are really worrying signs for the U.K. in its legislation. It really risks undermining all of the progress made in both the U.K. and the E.U. on sustainability over the last 10 years.”

Getting binding commitments to achieve sustainable levels in a U.K.-E.U. agreement would make a huge difference to the sustainability of fish stocks, Denman said.

“But time is running out, so sustainability really needs to be prioritized in the agenda moving forward,” she said.

Photo courtesy of M Barratt/Shutterstock


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