Preparing for a no-deal Brexit: Commercial fishing

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On 23 August 2018, the UK Government began publishing technical notes on the effect of a no-deal Brexit. These notes are intended to provide guidance to citizens, businesses, public sector bodies and Non-Governmental Organisations in the United Kingdom on how to prepare for the possibility of the UK leaving the EU next March without concluding a Withdrawal Agreement. It is expected that around eighty technical notes will be published in total. SPICe Spotlight is providing analysis and comparative information on a number of these. The first blog provided an overview of the UK Government’s Preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

This blogpost focuses on the technical notice Commercial fishing if there’s no Brexit deal.

As a member of the European Union, the UK’s fisheries are currently regulated by the EU under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), with fisheries management undertaken by the UK Government and devolved administrations. EU regulations dictate certain technical aspects of fishing (e.g. gear restrictions, minimum landing sizes, etc), as well as rules relating to fishing opportunities (e.g. quotas and effort controls) and access to fishing grounds.

After exit day

When the UK leaves the European Union on March 29 2019, it will become an independent coastal state under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

If a deal is reached between the UK and the EU, the UK would not enjoy the full rights of an independent coastal state. This is because the UK would have to comply with the CFP during the transition period until 31 December 2020, as agreed under the withdrawal agreement.

However, in a no deal scenario, after 29 March 2019, the UK will have control over fisheries governance and access to its waters out to 200 nautical miles (known as an Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ). It will be able to set a total allowable catch and other management measures for fish within its EEZ. It will also be able to determine which vessels may fish within this area.

The technical notice states that “Defra, together with the Devolved Administrations, is currently preparing secondary legislation (under the Withdrawal Act) to ensure the law works in the UK after we leave.” Secondary legislation introduced under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will go some way towards correcting and amending retained EU law to make sure that fisheries can operate after Brexit.

However, primary legislation (the UK Fisheries Bill) is necessary to provide powers to take full advantage of the rights of becoming an independent coastal. This bill also seeks to provide powers to Ministers to fulfil policy ambitions of the UK government set out in the UK Government’s Fisheries White Paper.

Access to waters

A no-deal Brexit would mean that non-UK-registered vessels will no longer have an automatic right to access UK waters and vice versa for UK-registered vessels fishing in EU waters.

UK Government statistics show that between 2012 and 2016, vessels registered in other EU Member states landed a total average of 739,000 tonnes per year, worth £521 million, from the UK EEZ. This compares to 546,000 tonnes, worth £663 million, landed by UK vessels in the UK EEZ. UK vessels also land a significant amount of fish from other EU Member states waters. Over the same period, this was an average of 94,000 tonnes per year, valued at £106 million.

Access to ports in the event of no deal

As with access to waters, non-UK registered vessels will no longer have an automatic right to access UK ports, and vice versa for UK-registered vessels accessing EU ports. UK vessels will be required to notify their intention to visit an EU port and present information relating to the vessel and catch on board. Vessels may also be subject to an inspection of the following:

  • A document check.
  • The vessel’s catch.
  • Vessel databases (where information is provided electronically).

Scottish Government statistics show that in 2017, 16% of total landings by weight (68,393 tonnes) and 6% by value (£31 million) by Scottish registered vessels were in EU ports outside the UK. For comparison, vessels registered in other EU Member States accounted for 10% of landings into Scotland by weight (32,651 tonnes) and 8% by value (£40 million).

Import and export of fishery products

The technical notice describes additional administration requirements for exports of fishery products in the event of no deal.

Requirements for UK exports to the EU:

Requirements for EU exports to the UK:

  • A catch certificate for each consignment of fish or fisheries products exported to be submitted to the Port Health Authority or relevant fisheries authority three working days before the estimated arrival time into the UK.

Currently the UK exports most of its fisheries products to EU countries. HMRC statistics show that in 2017, 70% (£1.2 billion) of exports of the UK’s fisheries products and 43% (£727 million) of Scotland’s fisheries products went to destinations in the EU.

It is not clear how much of an administrative burden the additional requirements would place on individual fishers and the industry. The technical notice explains that the UK fisheries authorities are “developing an IT system to facilitate the increase in catch certificates”.

The new requirements will likely be of concern to the shellfish sector of the fishing industry where issues have been raised over potential non-tariff barriers for exports. For example, in a recent Politico article, a representative of the Scottish Creel Fisherman’s Association highlighted the significance in border and customs delays in getting products to EU markets:

“Most of our prawns are sent right away to Europe in lorries filled with salt water tanks so they stay alive. That’s why we get more money for our product and even a short delay means fishermen don’t get paid”

Membership of Regional Fisheries Management Organisations

Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) are international organisations formed by countries with fishing interests in an area. RMFOs are a key way in which Coastal States manage migratory fish stocks as required under UNCLOS and the 1982 UN Fish Stocks Agreement.

The key RMFO for UK fishing interests is the Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC). The UK is currently a participant of the NEAFC as a Member of the EU. After Brexit, the UK would lose membership of the NEAFC and would need to join as an Independent Coastal State. However, the UK cannot apply until it leaves the EU.

The technical notice says the process of joining RMFOs may take up to 6 months and there may be a short gap in the UK’s membership where UK vessels may not be able to fish in international waters. In 2017, the UK fleet landed 3,000 tonnes (valued at £3 million) from NE Atlantic waters under the jurisdiction of the NEAFC. On average these waters accounted for 0.2% by quantity and 0.1% by value of landings from 2012-2016.

The notice does not state how a gap in membership could affect the management of shared stocks. The NEAFC facilitates negotiations between Coastal States around setting catch limits for high value stocks such as mackerel. This could mean the UK not having a seat at the table in these discussions.

Damon Davies, Researcher, Brexit Environment and Rural Affairs