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The Brexit Files: Fisheries – All You Need to Know

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Sarah Clews’s series on the environmental impact of Brexit continues with an analysis of fishing. You can find her first report on Agriculture here.


Just the other day I was cooking at home and listening to one of my favourite songs: ‘Beautiful Day’ by the legendary U2. As is human nature, I was subconsciously singing the lyrics whilst flipping my stir-fry, and I reached the beautiful verse, in which Bono gives lyrical testament to the awe-inspiring wonders of our world, ‘See China right in front of you/ See the canyons broken by cloud/ See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out…’

Mulling over these lyrics I suddenly realised that there was an ambiguity. Was Bono in his ode to the world’s beauty referring to the shoals of tuna fish who clear out the sea, eating plankton, etc., or was he referring to the fleets of tuna trawlers who clear out the shoals of tuna from the sea to land on our plates? Was he marvelling at humans harvesting the bounty of the sea or the fish themselves? It’s a lyrical conundrum which I have put to members of my family and it has proved a divisive issue (much like Brexit, funnily enough!) with people coming down on either side of the debate. I await official confirmation from Bono.

Either way, it reinforced for me the notion that our oceans are a source of wonder and great importance and in any negotiations about future policy the health of our oceans needs to be placed firmly at the forefront. The popularity of Blue Planet II has rightly demonstrated to us all the fragility of our oceans. They are vital not only as a marine habitat for millions of organisms from tiny plankton to gigantic blue whales, but they also act as the most essential carbon sink on earth. What is clear is that we need to respect our oceans and protect them by recognising that they are not inexhaustible, and that repetitive damage may become irreversible. With this sustainable mindset at the fore, I’m eager to understand how Brexit could affect the UK fisheries market, for better or for worse.

The UK’s catching sector was a clear and vocal supporter for Brexit, with 92% backing Brexit during the referendum. The majority were of the opinion that EU vessels had too much access to UK waters and were taking more fish than UK vessels themselves. As a member state of the EU, the UK is bound by the rules of the Common Fisheries Market.

So, what is the Common Fisheries Market (CFP)?

The hallmark of the CFP is shared access – all EU fishing fleets have access to EU waters. This means that EU waters are managed as a single EU exclusive economic zone (EEZ), from the 12-nautical mile limit. The CFP has undergone reform in recent decades to try and improve its record of poor sustainability, however it is still criticised for being over-centralised and complicit in wasteful practices such as the permitting of discarding of fish. Furthermore, it consistently sets its total allowable catches (TACs) above scientific advice. Consequently, it can be claimed that the CFP is promoting unsustainable fishing.

What are some of the key issues relating to fisheries post-Brexit?

During the fishing debates, we’ve undergone the drama of the scallop’s wars, with foreign and British vessels engaging in boat violence for want of a better phrase, and frequently we’ve heard that we need to “take back control of our waters!” But I think an important factor has been overlooked in this portion of the Brexit debate, and that is that it’s not just about catching fish – it’s also about selling them. We send nearly £1 billion of fish produce to the EU every year, tariff free.


92% of the UK catching sector voted for Brexit

In the Brexit negotiations, the focus has so far been on the landing of fish. However, the socioeconomic importance of the seafood importing-processing sector must not be overlooked. In order to sustain the profitable industry of selling the fish that we catch in the UK, we must try and maintain zero to low tariff trade in exports and imports. Moving forwards, the British fishing industry needs to try and maintain both high quality and affordability to remain competitive in the fish industry.

Post-Brexit, the UK, severed from the CFP, will become an independent coastal state, and will have sole responsibility for the management of the fisheries within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). But labels and abbreviations aside, what does this entail for the UK fishing industry? Despite the UK officially leaving in March 2019, the EU’s common fisheries policy is expected to apply until December 2020, acting as a transition period.

The EU is demanding unrestricted market access in return for fishing access in UK waters, but Michael Gove has declared that these two important conditions can and will be negotiated separately. Whether the EU will bite this bait is yet to be seen.

The Challenge of Mobility


Finally, the oceans present a rather unique environment to manage and there is a need to recognise the mobility of many fish stocks. For example, most spawning and nursery grounds for plaice and sole in the English Channel and the North Sea are outside the UK EEZ along the French, Belgian and Dutch coasts. When these baby plaice and sole become adults, they disperse into UK waters. The non-sedentary status of fish stocks, throws up complicated questions over who should have rights to the fish.

The government in its 25 Year Environment Plan has pledged to aim for sustainability to be at the core of its fisheries management system once we leave the EU, and so there is hope that the future of UK fishing could be one that is hinged on more responsible fishing. The future fishing policy needs to be flexible and responsive to fish stock abundance with fishing quotas that consider regional differences across the UK. With sustainability at the heart of the UK fishing industry, it could indeed turn out to be a beautiful day.

About the Author: Sarah Clews has just graduated from the University of York with a degree in English Literature & History. She is passionate about conservation-politics and protecting the environment for the generation of tomorrow. She also loves writing, reading and photography – you can visit her website here. You can find her on instagram at sarah.clews. She is open to messages and questions about this article. 

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