The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement may be a good deal for the UK overall but it is a rotten one for the British fishing industry. We were led to believe that regaining sovereignty over our waters would mean that the long decline in British fishing would be reversed. The rot set in when the UK subscribed to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in 1973. The new Agreement only gives the UK a marginal increase in fishing rights by value. See Table for the shares of key fish stocks according to the new Agreement and what the shares should have been according to the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations  : UK shares of agreed total allowable catchesThe government, however, claims that there will be a 25% increase “from just over half of the quota stocks in our own waters now,
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The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement may be a good deal for the UK overall but it is a rotten one for the British fishing industry. We were led to believe that regaining sovereignty over our waters would mean that the long decline in British fishing would be reversed. The rot set in when the UK subscribed to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in 1973. The new Agreement only gives the UK a marginal increase in fishing rights by value. See Table for the shares of key fish stocks according to the new Agreement and what the shares should have been according to the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations  :
UK shares of agreed total allowable catches
The government, however, claims that there will be a 25% increase “from just over half of the quota stocks in our own waters now, to two thirds of the stocks in our waters after five and a half years.”
The EU version of that is less specific: “Under the Agreement, EU fishing vessels will continue to have the current level of access to UK waters for a transition period of 5.5 years, with a gradual and balanced reduction of EU quotas in UK waters over time.” Neither version can be confirmed from the text of the Agreement as the annexes simply show the shares of the combined UK and EU total annual catches (TACs) and not the separate shares in UK and EU waters nor the tonnes nor the values nor any totals. The word “balanced” may well mean that the reduction of EU fishing in UK waters will be offset by a reduction of UK fishing in EU waters.
The EU has insisted on “grandfathering” existing practices into future rights, e.g. EU boats will continue to fish in inshore UK waters between six and 12 miles out (p.271). This is akin to saying the squatters have a legal right to own the premises in which they squat. What about our sovereign rights over our own waters? Forget those too: the CFP is replaced by a Fisheries Specialist Committee, co-chaired by a UK minister and an EU Commission equivalent who have to agree everything. For example, “If the Parties have not agreed a TAC [in UK or EU waters] for a stock listed in Annex FISH.1 or Annex FISH.2A or B by 10 December, they shall immediately resume consultations with the continued aim of agreeing the TAC. The Parties shall engage frequently with a view to exploring all possible options for reaching agreement in the shortest possible time.” (p.269). If either side’s claim is not agreed by the other, it will be entitled to the average of the previous three years [claimed] catches. (p.271)
Half a loaf is better than no bread and, as fish do not respect national borders, it does make sense to manage fish stocks jointly, based on ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) science. Decisions should be made by a qualified majority based on the relative sizes of fishing areas.
The UK may have the weaker position on the Fisheries Specialist Committee. UK secretaries of state serve an average two year term and junior ministers half that. The current UK Fisheries Minister, Victoria Prentis, took the role in February 2020 with no relevant experience. UK ministers will be concerned with fair play and their co-chairs will be professionals trying to please their member state ambitions for maximising their catches. The last 47 years have demonstrated which side wins. The UK joined the EEC in 1973 landing almost all the fish from its own waters: it now has half that. Stripping out the foreign owned, UK flagged vessels, the true UK share is much less: “Around half of England’s quota is ultimately owned by Dutch, Icelandic, or Spanish interests.” As a result of this decline, the UK, which should be a net exporter, imports about a third more fish than it exports.
Greenpeace has provided a good account of the reasons for the decline of UK fisheries. Three factors were responsible: the CFP and the allocation of quotas based on claimed catches, short-termism by parts of the fishing industry and lack of stewardship by the UK government. “From the 1980s onwards...the free movement of capital enabled EU shipowners to purchase vessels and to use national quotas in other EU countries. British fishermen have called this phenomenon ‘quota hopping’.” If a UK citizen wishes to sell overseas an obscure work of art that hardly anyone has ever seen, massive scrutiny is involved whereas UK fishing rights have been just waved away.
The Scottish government issued a scathing analysis of the fisheries deal on 29th December, showing that the UK share of most types of fish would actually reduce although the total tonnage would probably remain much the same. However, the new Agreement loses the UK’s right to the “Hague Preference” which usefully allows the UK to up its share of quotas under certain circumstances. “In the stocks where there has been a nominal increase in UK quota share, in the majority of cases the UK has only secured access to stocks where the EU was not currently fishing its full allocation.” And the UK has been granted new rights to fish, e.g. North Sea sole, which would be good if the UK had the facility to catch that species in that area.
The Agreement ignores the fishing in UK and EU waters by third parties. “9.3% of EU catches (2014-18) are made in the EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone] of third countries engaged with the EU in fishing agreements” notably those of Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. The extent to which these match reciprocal fishing in UK and EU waters is unclear. In 1976, the UK lost the “Cod War” with Iceland essentially because the Americans told the British government to concede because Iceland was threatening the American, sorry NATO, base in Iceland and submarines lanes nearby. That established the 200 mile EEZ principle which became the international convention in 1982. The Agreement is unclear about the current extent of third party fishing in UK and EU waters, reciprocally in theirs and from whose shares third party entitlements should be taken. All the UK and EU shares in the Annexes in the Agreement total to 100% of TACs.
The final problem with the new Agreement is that, although the UK is allowed to set the rules for fishing in its waters, it cannot police or enforce those rules: “2. Each Party shall take all necessary measures to ensure compliance by its vessels with the rules applicable to those vessels in the other Party’s waters, including authorisation or licence conditions.” (p.268) Here is another good idea: the British police will no longer deal with French motorists speeding on British roads. Instead, the French police will divine the culprits and decide whether to prosecute.
In summary, the fishing deal enshrines the status quo and the decline in the UK fishing industry looks set to continue. It is sad to say but the UK negotiators were inept. The EU position was declared in 2017, namely that they would maintain the status quo. The fishing assets acquired by the other member states during the UK’s 47 year EU sojourn were now theirs by right. If the UK had any objections to the means by which those assets had been obtained, they should have complained at the time. What is, is, and if the Brits want them back, they will have to pay full whack for them. Article 9 (p.272) of the Agreement seems to indicate that the party being squeezed out can claim full compensation even though its own actions were the cause. The arbitrators, under this Article, are only allowed to consider the amount of compensation, not the equity of the whole situation.
Knowing the EU negotiating argument as they did, the UK team should have created maximum publicity across Europe for the equity of returning the UK to the pre-EEC position. Being discreet civil servants, they kept their cards, if they had any, close to their chests. This is akin to the defence counsel confiding his case to the prosecution but failing to mention it to the jury. The “sovereignty” argument was rightly mocked in the EU as any trade agreement involves some sharing of sovereignty. An indication that the government recognises its failure can be taken from the 4th January announcement that the fishing industry will get a £100M sweetener.
The best that can be said for this fishing Agreement is that it kicks the can 5.5 years down the road. The UK government may then do better.
 Email from Barrie Deas, CEO of NFFO, 3rd January 2021.
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