Guest Blog: The UK as an international fisheries actor – regional and global perspectives

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This guest blog from Professor James Harrison from Edinburgh Law School is part of a series of guest blogs exploring issues related to the recent SPICe briefing ‘UK-EU Future Relationship Negotiations: Fisheries’.

As with all guest blogs, what follows are the views of the author, not those of SPICe or indeed the Scottish Parliament.

Following the UK’s exit from the EU, the UK is now what is called an ‘independent coastal state’. In this new role, particular attention has been paid to the prospects for the UK of distancing itself from the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and developing a new fisheries relationship with the EU.  Yet, the consequences of the UK becoming an independent coastal state are much broader and this blog will consider other important implications of the UK’s new status and the opportunities for the UK to step up as an international leader in sustainable fisheries. 

Forging new relationships

In addition to establishing new relations with the EU, the UK must also develop parallel arrangements with other important actors involved in fishing in the North-East Atlantic region (see map below).

Boundaries of the Atlantic, Northeast (Major Fishing Area 27). Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

The UK will share responsibility for a number of key North Sea stocks with Norway and it is understood that negotiations between the two countries on a future agreement began in February with a meeting between UK and Norwegian fisheries ministers.

The relationship with the Faroe Islands is also important given that the UK and the Faroe Islands share jurisdiction over a small portion of their respective exclusive economic zones, known as the ‘Special Area’.  Recent reports of ‘Russian supertrawlers’ spotted fishing in the Special Area highlight the need for cooperative management of this area, not only on fisheries matters, but also in relation to marine environmental protection.

For other pelagic stocks (fish species that feed away from the sea floor and coast) – such as mackerel, blue whiting, and Norwegian spring spawning herring – the UK will have to decide whether it associates itself with the existing coastal state arrangements for these species, previously reached on behalf of the UK by the EU. 

Management of pelagic stocks has been particularly challenging in recent years, given questions over the scientific advice and the refusal of some coastal and fishing states to participate in cooperative arrangements.  Yet, these stocks are vital for the Scottish fishing fleet and so it is important that the UK contributes to their sustainable management. 

Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs)

Another way for the UK to demonstrate fisheries leadership is through participation in RFMOs, whose main role is to set conservation and management measures for fishing on the high seas adjacent to coastal state waters. 

The UK has already said that it will seek to join all of the relevant RFMOs in the North Atlantic, namely:

With its own seat at the table, it will be interesting to see what contribution the UK makes to ensuring that RFMOs contribute to sustainable fisheries management.    

UK influence in global fisheries policy

Beyond RFMOs, becoming an independent coastal state also permits the UK to play a greater role in fisheries matters at the global level, including in ongoing negotiations on fisheries subsidies at the World Trade Organisation and the biennial meetings of the Fisheries Committee of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which, among other things, oversees the implementation of the global fisheries principles contained in the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF).  Whilst the Code of Conduct is not legally binding, it is a key international policy document, which the UK will need to promote in both its internal actions and in its relations with other states, if it is to be considered a leader in this area.

Sustainable fisheries and trade policy

Another key issue facing the UK is how it should address sustainable fisheries in its trade relations with other countries.  The importance of market measures to ensure fisheries conservation has been recognised in global instruments such as the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing. The EU has developed regulations to ensure that fish products entering the Single Market have been caught in a sustainable manner, in particular through Council Regulation No 1005/2008, which permits the EU to suspend trade in fisheries products with countries determined to be supporting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.  This regulation introduces a complex supervisory mechanism whereby the fisheries policies and practices of third countries are monitored by the European Commission. 

This regulation will be carried over into UK law at the end of the transition period, with certain modifications to allow the UK fisheries administrations to oversee its implementation.  Nevertheless, there are questions about whether the UK will apply these powers in precisely the same manner as the EU or whether the scheme will be amended in the longer term to introduce a different UK approach. 

The UK has also committed to ensuring that any future trade agreements embed sustainability and environmental goals and it would be possible for the UK to include specific provisions to promote sustainable fisheries in any future Free Trade Agreement as some other countries have begun to do.

The UK as champion of sustainable fisheries?

Once the transition period expires at the end of this year (assuming there is no extension), the UK will find itself in a position to be able to develop its own policies in relation to fisheries matters on the international stage for the first time in many decades.  In doing so, the UK indicated in its 2018 Sustainable Fisheries White Paper that it intended to be a ‘champion’ of sustainable fisheries.  We will have to wait and see whether its actions meet this ambition, although its ability to influence discussions at the regional and global levels will also depend upon its skills of diplomacy, persuasion, coalition-building, and brokering compromise. Leading by example will be critical in this process. 

Whilst many of the issues discussed in this blog concern international relations, which are reserved matters for the purposes of the devolution settlement, it is important that the UK Government proactively engages with the devolved administrations in order to ensure that there is broad support for its international fisheries policies, particularly given the importance of these issues for the Scottish fishing fleet.  

James Harrison, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Edinburgh