The future for fish – issues in the UK White Paper

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The long awaited UK Government Fisheries White Paper Sustainable Fisheries for Future Generations was published last week.  This blog highlights some of the issues in it.

Taking back control

Until the end of 2020, fishing will be in line with the draft withdrawal agreement and EU regulations will continue to apply. Fisheries negotiations take place annually in December, so:

  • In December 2018, the UK will still be an EU Member State and remain fully involved in EU fisheries negotiations. The UK Secretary of State will make final decisions as leader of the UK delegation.
  • In December 2019, the UK will be part of the EU negotiations as a consultee only. The UK’s share of EU quota will not change.
  • In December 2020, the UK will negotiate fishing opportunities for 2021 as an independent coastal state. The UK will negotiate who has access to UK waters and the EU and other coastal states will negotiate access to their waters. The UK Secretary of State will make final decisions, as now.

Access to UK waters

The White Paper does not say who will have access to UK waters or how this will be decided. The forthcoming UK Fisheries Bill will maintain access for UK vessels throughout UK waters, and will allow the UK to decide which other countries’ vessels may fish in UK waters after 2020, and on what terms.

A bargaining chip?

Recent SPICe research has shown that there have been cases where negotiations between the EU and third countries have resulted in the EU gaining access to fish stocks in exchange for access to the single market. Indeed, the EU negotiating guidelines state that any future free trade agreement between the UK and the EU would address:

“trade in goods, with the aim of covering all sectors, which should be subject to zero tariffs… In this context, existing reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources should be maintained.”

The White Paper recognises that “trade is vital” and insists that access to markets for fisheries products is separate from fishing opportunities and access to waters. It states that “this is consistent with fisheries agreements internationally, and with EU-third country precedence”. Commentators are sceptical.

Allocation of fishing quota

Currently, the UK receives a fixed share of fishing opportunity in EU waters based on fishing patterns in 1973 – 1978, known as “relative stability”. The White Paper proposes a new approach, which has been characterised as “uncertain and vague” by some commentators:

  • Initially, the UK will try to increase fishing opportunities through “annual exchanges”.
  • Later, an undefined “fairer and more scientific method” will be used.
  • Eventually, multi-annual agreements may be considered.

Currently, UK fishing quota is allocated between the four UK fisheries administrations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) based on landings between 1994 – 1996. The fisheries administrations then allocate quota to the fishing industry. The White Paper states that existing quota will be divided between the fisheries administrations as it is now. Additional quota will be allocated on a different (undefined) basis.  However:

  • Whilst allocation based on historical catch will end for international allocations, it is proposed that it will remain for much of the UK allocation. This prevents significant re-allocation of quota. Some propose increasing quota to smaller local vessels.
  • Where would new quota come from: A larger catch from UK waters? But the White Paper commits to continuing with the maximum sustainable yield approach; Taking back fishing rights in UK waters from the EU and others? But negotiating guidelines are clear – the EU seeks to retain access to UK waters and resources.

Discard ban and choke species

In the UK mixed fisheries, ‘choke’ species have been problematic in implementing the landing obligation (or discard ban) required in the common fisheries policy. This is where exhaustion of quota for one species prevents fishing continuing for other species as both are caught together.

According to the White Paper, the UK Government remains committed to ending discards. There is little detail on how a domestic discard ban would work, apart from working “with the fishing industry and NGOs on … measures that are tailored to work effectively in UK waters” and “working closely with the Devolved Administrations…” Scotland will be able to develop its own approach to discards and choke species.

One option proposed for England is for choke fish to be landed, subject to a charge, with the choke fish covered by reserve quota. Income generated could benefit the sector.

Sustainable fisheries

The White Paper seeks to “pursue an ecosystem approach … that aims for more sustainable management.” Stakeholders are concerned about the lack of clarity and legal underpinning.

The Marine Conservation Society says there is a lack of clarity on how sustainability and an ecosystem approach will be achieved. RSPB says “Failure to give legal teeth to an ecosystem approach will leave UK fisheries less sustainable than the much-maligned Common Fisheries Policy. “


The White Paper states “We will consider whether and how to replace the EMFF [European Maritime and Fisheries Fund]”. The UK was allocated €243.1m from the  EMFF between 2014 and 2020. Scotland was allocated 44% (€108m) of this.

The White Paper provides no more certainty on the proposed UK Shared Prosperity Fund which, it says, “will be important for coastal communities across the UK.” This will be consulted on in 2018.

There is discussion of raising revenue from the fishing industry itself. For example, the White Paper suggests that in England, new quota could be allocated by placing “a value on fish as a sustainable natural resource” to raise revenue, perhaps using tendering or auctioning.

UK frameworks

A new UK framework for fisheries management is required, with legislative and non-legislative elements. The White Paper states “…The framework has not yet been agreed and work continues with the Devolved Administrations.”

Who has a voice?

As the New Economics Foundation (NEF) points out, the UK Government press release quotes “The two largest federations representing quota holders… even though this is not standard practice (and certainly not good practice).” Both the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisation and The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation welcome the White Paper. NEF seem suspicious that small scale fishers, NGOs and devolved administrations are not quoted.

Indeed, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing, responded to the White Paper saying “…once again the UK Government has failed to substantively engage with us while developing its future fisheries proposals … there is no UK fisheries policy and to suggest so is misleading”.

Wendy Kenyon, Senior Researcher, Brexit, Environment and Rural Unit