UK-EU negotiations: a message from the cod

The Fisheries Council meeting is a Brussels’ December classic. Every year fisheries ministers from across Europe get together to decide how much cod, mackerel, plaice and other fish should be caught in the Atlantic and the North Sea.

The agreement is usually reached late at night, after tense negotiations not disclosed to the public. Outside, the pressure is high, with fishermen’s organisations asking to catch as much as possible and environmental groups worried about species being wiped out from the seas. The deliberations are important for fish and chips shops in the UK and for entire fishing communities in Britain and other EU countries. These decisions played a role too in the UK choice to leave the European Union.

Fish know nothing about borders

Created in 1983 on the basis of existing agreements, the Common Fisheries Policy has been one of the most criticized measures of the European Union. The purpose was to establish common rules for EU fishing waters, for trade in fishing products and for the sustainability of fish stocks.

“Fish know nothing of political borders and the majority of commercial fish stocks are shared between the UK and the EU or other European coastal states to some degree,” acknowledges a recent report on the impacts of Brexit by a House of Lords committee. “Species of these fish may spend different stages of their life cycles in different nations’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), and their spawning grounds may be in a different region from that in which they are caught when mature.”

Most commercial species in the EU are managed through Total Allowable Catches (TACs), which determine the volume of fish that can be caught (in theory) without undermining the long-term sustainability of the stock. Every summer scientists of the International Council on the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and the EU Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) provide an assessment of the health of fish stocks, advising on the maximum that can be taken without risking future yields. On this basis, the European Commission proposes the TACs for the following year, but it is national governments that make the final decision at the December Council. Once agreed, the TACs are divided among EU states in the form of national quotas and finally, each country allocates the national quota to its fleet.

The agreement reached at this December Council was not so different from those of previous years, in that scientific advice for many stocks was ignored. As a result, fishers will be able to catch more cod, haddock and sole next year. But figures provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts, an environmental organisation, show that catches for some fish will be unsustainable in the long term. For cod in the Celtic Sea, which is just above the limit where reproduction would be impaired, the TAC is 96% above scientific advice. For pollock in the Celtic and Irish Seas it is 189% higher and for haddock in the Irish Sea it is 61% beyond the recommendations of scientists.

The Brexit menu

This way of sharing fisheries resources has been heavily criticised along the years. British fishermen felt they were granted an unfair proportion of catches made in their waters (30% of the total quotas for 73 stocks, according to researchers at the University of Aberdeen). Many of them voted to leave the European Union.

As regards the national distribution, the House of Lords report noticed that it has disadvantaged smaller local vessels, benefiting industrial corporations.

At the same time, the sustainability of stocks has not been secured. “We recognise the fact that in recent years there has been progress in reducing the average level of overfishing,” says a letter of environmental groups to the British Minister for Fisheries, George Eustice. “Nevertheless, we note with great concern that [..] more than 60% of assessed EU stocks are outside safe biological limits and nearly half of stocks remain subject to overfishing.”

The House of Lords report concludes that “withdrawing from the Common Fisheries Policy gives the UK the opportunity to develop a fisheries management regime that is tailored to the conditions of UK waters and its fleet.” The UK will be able to control the access of foreign vessels to British waters and to renegotiate the share of Total Allowable Catches.” But the report also says the majority of fish caught by UK fleets are exported (66% to EU countries) and the majority of fish consumed in the UK are imported (32% from the rest of the EU). So the committee recommends to maintain access to the EU single market and its regulations.

As regards over-exploitation, the report upholds the position of environmental groups, stressing the need to end overfishing or the fishing industry revenue and jobs will be at risk.

How to bring all the interests together? Like for any other sector, no one knows what will happen after Brexit. But the process of establishing fisheries quota gives a glimpse of what negotiations may look like: experts providing advice, the European Commission making subsequent proposals, but real bargaining in the Council determined by national interests.


Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved.
Photo courtesy Pixabay.

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