Britain’s fishing fleet and Brexit promises – key questions answered

What happened to Britain’s fishing fleet?

The distant water fleet that once sailed out of Aberdeen, Fleetwood and the Humber for fishing grounds around Iceland, the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and the Arctic was decimated in the 1970s after a change in international law established exclusive economic zones (EEZ) up to 200 miles around coastal states. After the final cod war with Iceland in 1976, Britain gradually lost access to these waters and saw a collapse in domestic fishing, even though consumer preference remained for white demersal fish like cod, hake and haddock rather than species more common to inshore waters.

Why did Britain lose control of its own EEZ?

When Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the introduction of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and a shared EEZ for the whole of the EU was largely based around existing patterns of fishing, which tended to favour continental fishermen who had stayed closer to home. In extreme cases that meant, for example, that the quota share for cod in the English channel favoured French fisherman over British by 9 to 1. The UK government was seen as too weak to negotiate more favourable splits based on the actual stocks of its fish. It still has exclusive access to waters less than 6 miles from the coast.

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What was promised by Brexit?

Departure from the EU was intended to restore the UK’s status as an independent coastal state in fishing negotiations. The agriculture secretary, Michael Gove, quickly pledged to withdraw from the 1964 London Fisheries Convention and take back control of the zone between 6 and 12 miles out. Withdrawal from the CFP and control of the remaining UK EEZ up to 200 miles (or half way in the case of nearby countries) was intended to follow immediately after Brexit on 29 March 2019. Britain then hoped to become like Norway, which conducts annual fish negotiations on equal terms with the EU while retaining access to its markets.

What happened instead?

The need to negotiate a transition phase to delay the impact of a “cliff-edge” departure from the single market on the rest of business has forced the UK to agree to abide by all of the existing rules until at least January 2021. At negotiations last week, the EU made clear this would include maintaining the CFP rules throughout. Britain would only have a consultative role at any talks during this phase. The EU has also made any future post-Brexit trade deal conditional on maintaining access for its fisherman, something the UK industry fears means further climbdowns will follow.

EU access to British fishing waters may be renegotiated after the Brexit transition period

UK waters shared with the EU until 2021

The UK currently shares access to the EU exclusive economic zone through a system of quotas

Norway, Iceland and the Faroes independently negotiate management of fish stocks with the EU

Norway, Iceland and the Faroes independently negotiate management of fish stocks with the EU

UK waters shared with the EU until 2021

The UK currently shares access to the EU exclusive economic zone through a system of quotas

Guardian graphic. Source: Marineregions.org

What happens next?

The government insists the delay means Britain will only miss out on one round of annual fishing negotiations and will continue eventually to become an independent coastal state. It is likely however that any wider Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU will include limits on Britain’s ability to negotiate away existing European fishing rights inside the UK EEZ. At best, this could delay the rebalancing of quota shares demanded by British fishermen. At worst, it could make it almost impossible to change the status quo without jeopardising access to European fish consumers as well as the much more valuable FTA that Britain needs for its bigger exporters in other sectors.