The future of fisheries management in Scotland: 3. international influence

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This blog is part of a series of blogs examining key elements of the Scottish Government’s Future Fisheries Management Policy Intent Paper, which was published on 1 October 2020. The paper sets out the government’s response to stakeholder views on the Future of fisheries management in Scotland national discussion paper. This blog focusses on international aspects of the paper.

International fisheries negotiations

Every year, international negotiations take place to agree on issues such as conservation measures, the use of fishing equipment and agreeing and sharing catch limits based on scientific advice. These negotiations fulfil obligations under international law for the joint management of shared fish stocks.

Negotiations take place between the EU (on behalf of Member States) and other independent coastal states (e.g. Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands). Separate bilateral negotiations also take place between independent coastal states. Scotland’s interests in these negotiations were previously part of a UK delegation represented by the EU. Now that the UK has left the EU, the UK will negotiate as an independent coastal state. The Scottish Government and Scottish fishing industry representatives will continue to contribute to UK negotiations.

Scotland’s stake in negotiations

Scottish fishing vessels account for around three quarters of UK landings of high value pelagic (mid-water) species such as mackerel and herring. Scottish fleets therefore have an important stake in international negotiations on fishing opportunities in these stocks. The chart below shows the proportion of landings of pelagic species into the UK by Scottish vessels in 2019.

Bar chart showing the proportion of landings of pelagic fish species such as herring and mackerel into the UK in 2019 by vessel nationality. By weight Scottish vessels account for 68% of landings compared to 18% by other UK vessels and 14% by foreign vessels. By value, Scottish vessels account for 74% of landings compared to 14% by other UK vessels and 12% by foreign vessels.

Can the Scottish Government lead international negotiations?

International relations are a reserved matter under the Scotland Act 1998. Therefore, the Scottish Government does not have a legal right to lead international fisheries negotiations.

The Scottish Government’s Future of Fisheries Management policy intent paper states:

“there was broad support from stakeholders for our approach that Scotland, as the biggest partner in fisheries in the UK, should be leading in international negotiations […] We will set out how we will become a world leading fisheries nation, including how we intend to work in future with all administrations in the UK, and also outline our approach to international engagement and negotiations in the strategy, including our overarching principles for future negotiations and our values.”

The Scottish Government’s ability to lead post-Brexit international fisheries negotiations depends upon working relationships between the Scottish and UK Government. Much of the UK’s scientific expertise and industry stakeholders are based in Scotland because most fishing for high-value shared stocks occurs in Scottish waters. Therefore, the UK will continue to depend on Scottish expertise in international negotiations.

During a Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee evidence session on 9 October 2019, Mike Park from the Scottish White Fish Producers Association explained the industry’s hopes for a greater involvement in negotiations after Brexit:

“in a post-Brexit situation, the industry has always seen itself sitting with the UK delegation in negotiations. I have been at 25 December councils in 25 years of EU and Norway negotiations, and we have had to sit in the corridor while the Norwegian industry gets to sit with its delegation. That is infuriating. Going forward, as a coastal state, we would like the industry to be bolted in as equal partners in the discussions.”

The UK Fisheries Bill

The UK Fisheries Bill provides that only the UK Secretary of State has the power to determine fishing opportunities for UK vessels for the purposes of complying with the UK’s international obligations and must consult with Scottish Ministers ahead of this.  There is no requirement for UK Ministers to seek the consent of Scottish Ministers in determining fishing opportunities.

This means that the UK Secretary of State will be able to determine fishing opportunities (quota limits) for stocks in Scottish waters or fishing effort (e.g. maximum days at sea) for Scottish vessels without consent frorm the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Government previously called for an earlier version of the Bill to be amended to require consent. Despite the new version of the Bill remaining unchanged in this regard, the Scottish Government recommended giving legislative consent to the Bill. The legislative consent memorandum stated:

“The Bill is broadly similar to that introduced into the House of Commons on 25 October 2018. However, the intervening period has seen intensive discussion between officials of all four administrations. Those discussions resolved a number of points of disagreement and designed new approaches to fisheries management within the UK. These revamped structures recognise the powers and competencies of the various administrations and allow them to work co-operatively or independently as is necessary.”

In an article published by The Scotsman on 29 January 2020, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy is quoted as stating the following in response to the revised Bill:

“[Ministers are] seriously concerned that Scotland still does not have its own place at international fisheries negotiations as a matter of right, something that we have long called for.”

Despite the Scottish Government recommending legislative consent, SNP MPs in Westminster then voted against the Bill in the House of Commons. During a debate on the second reading of the Bill, the SNP’s shadow fisheries spokesperson, Diedre Brock MP was asked about the apparently contradicting views on the Bill from her party between Holyrood and Westminster. She responded:

“with legislative consent motions […] a consent is needed, sought and approved only for the devolved areas. I will be speaking about other areas that are still reserved to this Parliament.”

She went on to say:

“I cannot support the Bill. It does not provide a framework for fisheries after Brexit. It does not protect our fishing communities. It does nothing to make things easier for those communities. It is an empty shell of a thing, and we should not be supporting it.”

The challenge ahead

A key challenge for post-Brexit fisheries negotiations will be balancing the desire to gain additional fishing opportunities for UK fleets, while at the same time, not pushing so hard that international relationships breakdown. This could lead to unilateral quota setting which has historically led to overfishing in some cases.

Respondents to the Future of Fisheries Management consultation urged caution in post-Brexit negotiations:

“Respondents noted how access to the new 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone was seen as an opportunity to negotiate with other EU and third countries in exchange for quota shares. However, some respondents stressed that while this was seen to be a major feature of the earliest negotiations, it should not be used over time to the extent that it weakens the resolve of third countries to move towards new sharing agreements.”

There have been recent suggestions that the UK and EU could agree a “phasing-out mechanism” that would gradually reduce EU quota shares over time. Getting the balance right will be difficult, and as a recent SPICe guest blog showed, the risks for healthy fish populations and industry are high if things go wrong.

Damon Davies, Environment, Rural, Constitution and International Research Unit

Blog header image by Andrew Buchanan on Unsplash