Will there be changes to fisheries policy during the transition period? What will happen to policy after 2020?

This Insight explains where things currently stand and what happens to fisheries policy after the transition period.

What now for fisheries?

Fisheries will play a central role in the UK trade negotiations with the EU over the next five months. Both sides have set out very different positions on fisheries. The UK wants to negotiate access on an annual basis, but the EU wants a longer-term agreement on access to UK waters.

The Political Declaration, agreed by the UK and EU as a basis for the future relationship negotiations, set a deadline for a fisheries agreement of July 2020. This is in contrast to the deadline for a trade deal, which isn’t until December 2020.

During the transition the same rules apply

During the transition period the UK will continue to abide by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). This includes fishing within the annual quota allocations for Member States. The meeting of EU Ministers to set quota for 2020 took place in December 2019. As a full EU Member State at the time, the UK was represented at the negotiations as usual.

Quota negotiations are important. They set how much vessels from each Member States are allowed to catch in each fishing area covered by quota rules.

The CFP also sets rules on how fishing is carried out, such as regulations on the type of gear allowed and minimum sizes for fish catches. These rules will continue to apply during the transition. This includes the discard ban and landing obligation that many fishermen in the UK are unhappy about. A Lords’ Committee Report in 2019 concluded that the ban had been poorly implemented.

How fishing opportunities are allocated to individual fishing vessels is unaffected by Brexit or the transition period. This is because it has always been within the UK’s competence rather than the EU’s. Fishing for non-quota species in UK waters, such as most shellfish species, isn’t affected either as it does not fall under the CFP.

After the transition the UK sets the rules

Once the transition period ends the UK will be responsible for setting its own fisheries policy. It will set its own quotas and decide to what extent it will allow access to EU vessels. It will also be able to set the rules on how fishing is carried out in UK waters, and how fisheries are supported.

However, under international law the UK Government will have to agree quotas with neighbouring nations on shared fish stocks. The UK shares about 100 fish stocks with the EU. It will also have to consider historic fishing rights.

Previously, the stated Government position was one that increased the quota share for UK vessels while recognising the “need to do that over time”. The Fisheries White Paper made clear there was “no intention to change the method for allocating existing quota”. Instead, the Government would start a dialogue on how to allocate any additional quota resulting from Brexit.

Future rules will depend on future negotiations

So how important is fisheries in the trade negotiations? The short answer is very. Arguably disproportionately so. Fisheries is a small part of the UK economy. However, the economic activity from fisheries is concentrated in coastal areas, where it is important both socially and economically.

Fisheries also featured prominently in the Brexit debate. However, the UK fishing sector is varied and has different expectations from Brexit. Fishers, both quota and non-quota sectors, are expecting greater fishing opportunities. The processing sector and shellfish exporters have concerns about access to export markets and potential border delays.

The UK Government has set out that it envisages a “suite of agreements” including  a comprehensive free trade agreement and an  agreement on fisheries. The EU position is that agreement on fisheries shall guide the conditions on agreement of a future economic partnership, specifically “access conditions under the free trade area”.

Failure to meet the July 2020 deadline for a fisheries agreement could impact the wider trade negotiations. Fisheries has been referred to as a red line issue by French Ministers. The link between reaching agreement on fisheries and other sectors which are a significant part of the UK economy, such as services, has also been highlighted by EU Ministers.

What does the Fisheries Bill do?

The Fisheries Bill [HL] 2019-20 was introduced in the House of Lords in January 2020, with Second Reading on 11 February. The Bill replicates for the most part the Fisheries Bill 2017-19.

The Bill replaces some of the CFP legislation with domestic legislation, with the rest having been brought over as retained EU legislation. The Bill will set out in legislation the UK Government’s powers to set fishing quotas for each stock and area, for the whole of the UK. It creates a new licencing system for foreign fishing vessels in UK water; sets out fisheries objectives; some new quota allocation proposals; and a discard prevention charging scheme.

Fisheries management is a devolved matter. So the Bill also provides powers for the devolved administrations to introduce and amend regulations on fisheries and marine conservation in each nation of the UK.

The transition period will see UK fisheries continue relatively unchanged. The legislation before Parliament, and negotiations with the EU, will shape what it looks like from 2021 onwards.

Further Reading

Fisheries Bill 2019-20, House of Lords Library.

Fisheries and Brexit, House of Commons Library

Fisheries Bill 2017-19, House of Commons Library.

Fisheries Management in the UK, House of Commons Library.

About the author: Elena Ares is a researcher specialising in fisheries and marine conservation.

Photo: Scarborough Trawler going fishing at Dusk-1 by Sheba_Also 45,000 photos is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.