How are fishing quotas set? Stage 2: coastal State negotiations

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This blog is the second in a series of posts setting out the process for determining quotas for fish stocks. The three stages are set out in the diagram below. The first blog explained the process for issuing scientific advice on catch limits. This blog will explain how the EU and other coastal States agree a total allowable catch for shared stocks.


What are the coastal State negotiations?

Under international law, coastal States are obliged to jointly manage fish stocks that migrate between, or straddle international borders. The negotiations aim to set catch limits, access arrangements and other conservation and management measures. This is undertaken in negotiations through Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RMFOs). RFMOs are international organisations formed by countries with fishing interests in an area.

The key RMFO of relevance for Scottish fishing interests is the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) which deals with negotiations of high value pelagic stocks such as mackerel and herring. Currently the EU negotiates at meetings of NEAFC on behalf of the UK with other independent coastal states such as Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

Do coastal States always reach an agreement?

There have been occasions in the past where coastal States have failed to agree on quota for certain stocks and decided to unilaterally set quotas for their fleets. Most notably this occurred with disagreement over mackerel stocks between 2010 and 2014 – known as the “Mackerel War”.

The Mackerel War was triggered in 2010 when Iceland and the Faroe Islands unilaterally allocated increases in mackerel quota. These states argued that migration of mackerel stocks into its waters and a decline in species such as cod and herring traditionally targeted by its fleets justified the increased quota.

The Mackerel War resulted in overfishing of mackerel stocks and the decision by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to remove its MSC sustainability accreditation from North Sea and North Atlantic mackerel.

After a series of failed talks, the dispute was eventually resolved in 2014 when an agreement on quota was reached between the EU and other coastal States. Although International Law demands cooperation between States, the Mackerel War serves as a reminder of the potential consequences of disputes over shared stocks.

Case study: 2019 agreement on mackerel quota

The previous blog in this series highlighted the 42% reduction in Northeast Atlantic mackerel quota recommended in scientific advice issued by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) for 2019. It also emphasised that scientific advice on stocks is not always followed and that coastal States often agree catch limits which exceed this.

Since that blog was published, a trilateral agreement has been reached between the EU, Norway and the Faroe Islands on the mackerel quota for 2019. The agreement sets a 20% reduction in the Total Allowable Catch compared to 2018. The total agreed is 653,438 tonnes – considerably higher than the 318,403 tonnes recommended by ICES.

The charts below show how the total quota agreed between coastal States since 2016 has been consistently set above scientific advice. Furthermore, the EU’s share (which includes the UK) for 2019 alone is now higher than ICES recommended catch limit.



For context, it is worth bearing in mind that Article 2 of the Common Fisheries Policy sets an objective to achieve stock exploitation rates at maximum sustainable yield (MSY) “by 2015 where possible and, on a progressive, incremental basis at the latest by 2020 for all stocks.”

The UK Fisheries Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on 25 October 2018. The fisheries objectives set out in Clause 1 of the Bill largely mirror objectives set out in Article 2 of the CFP – including a precautionary objective to:

“ensure that exploitation of living marine biological resources restores and maintains populations of harvested species above biomass levels capable of producing maximum sustainable yield.”

However, the CFP commitment to achieve stock exploitation rates at MSY by 2020 is not replicated in the Bill.

Notwithstanding the uncertainties over scientific assessments of fish stocks discussed in the previous blog post, the recent trend in agreed mackerel quotas calls into question the feasibility of meeting 2020 targets for sustainable exploitation of fish stocks.

The negotiation process during and after withdrawal from the EU

The current EU withdrawal agreement endorsed by the European Council contains provisions for arrangements on fisheries negotiations during the transition period. If ratified, the EU will continue to negotiate at coastal States meetings on behalf of the UK during transition. However, the UK Secretary of State will no longer have the automatic right of a seat at the table during negotiations.  The withdrawal agreement states that the UK will be consulted during coastal State negotiations and the December Council of Ministers, but is not obliged to do so. This process is set out in the diagram below.

SPICe_Fishing_2018_Fishing_Quotas_During Transistion

After transition, the UK Government has stated its intention to join RFMOs as a newly independent coastal State. It is likely the UK will then negotiate catch limits at coastal States meetings in the same way that other independent coastal States such as Norway and the Faroe Islands currently do as set out in the diagram below.

SPICe_Fishing_2018_Fishing_Quotas_Post transition

Clause 18 of The UK Fisheries Bill sets out how this will work in practice. It gives the Secretary of State powers to determine quota and effort for British boats for the purpose of “complying with an international obligation” of the UK to determine the fishing opportunities of the UK.

Clause 19 provides a duty for the Secretary of State to consult with devolved Ministers before making a determination on fishing opportunities. However, there is some uncertainty over whether or not Clause 18 can be interpreted as dealing with international relations (which is reserved), or to implement and observe international obligations (which is devolved).

In a letter to the UK Government published this week, the Scottish Government indicates its position is the latter. It seeks an amendment to Clause 18 that would require consent from Scottish Ministers for any determination on fishing opportunities.

The next blog will focus on the final stage of the annual quota setting cycle, the EU December Council of Ministers, which determines how much of the EU’s quota allocation for key stocks goes to each Member State.

Damon Davies, Researcher, Brexit, Environment and Rural Affairs