Between the devil and the deep blue sea – What does no deal mean for fisheries?

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Negotiations between the UK Government and the EU continue with rumours of progress often being countered hours later by suggestions of new setbacks.  The same sticking points which have presented a barrier to agreement during the talks for the last 11 months continue to hold up the negotiations.  The political interventions of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have ensured the negotiations continue to work towards finding an agreement.

However, as the clock ticks down (there are just nine days until the end of the transition period), whilst a deal is still possible, all eyes are now on preparing for a no-deal outcome when the transition period ends at 11pm on 31 December 2020.

The UK in a Changing Europe’s report into the implications of no-deal suggested:

It would mean a no deal on trade, no agreement on aviation or other transport links, no agreement on fishing nor on security and judicial cooperation. It might also mean that the UK is not given the go-ahead on data adequacy or on equivalence for financial services – both decisions that are down to the EU to make alone, and that it has linked to the overall negotiations over the future relationship.

A no-deal outcome would have many consequences from a change in the trading relationship to the future security relationship and of course the UK and EU fisheries relationship.  Over the next two days, SPICe will publish four blogs examining the impact of a no-deal Brexit.  This second blog provides a brief overview of the key impacts of a no deal scenario for fisheries.


Fisheries has been a key feature of Brexit from the initial 2016 referendum campaign through to the current negotiations. It has also been perhaps the most dominant sticking point in agreeing a future relationship with the EU.

Different sectors of the fishing industry have different priorities. A deal would be welcomed by some who rely on exporting fresh shellfish to EU markets or on imports for processing. No deal would be welcomed by some in the catching sector who would stand to gain a greater share of fishing opportunities in UK waters. Neither outcome satisfies all of the fishing and seafood industry. This blog summarises some of the immediate impacts of no deal.

Access to waters

In the event of a no-deal outcome, at 11pm on 31 December 2020, EU registered fishing boats would no longer have automatic access to fish in UK waters. Future access is subject to the ongoing negotiations between the UK and EU. Any foreign vessel wishing to fish in UK waters will require a vessel license from the new UK Single Issuing Authority (operating from the Marine Management Organisation on behalf of the UK and devolved administrations).

The same requirements apply to vessels from non-EU coastal states such as Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Access for vessels from these countries also depends on concluding bilateral agreements with the UK.

Despite some of the debate around this issue, it’s worth noting that a sudden overnight change in access arrangements would not necessarily be the ideal outcome for either the UK or the EU. UK vessels also fish in EU and other coastal state waters. Fishers in the UK and abroad may not have prepared for a no-deal outcome, leaving only a matter of days to prepare for a fundamental change in where they habitually fish. This is why it has been suggested that the UK and EU were considering a gradual “phasing-out mechanism” to allow more time for fishers to adjust to changing access arrangements.

To soften the blow of a no-deal outcome, which would be particularly damaging to its fleets, the European Commission has proposed the introduction of contingency measures to allow for continued reciprocal access by EU and UK vessels in each other’s waters. This would allow reciprocal access for a further year until 31 December 2021, or until a wider UK-EU fisheries agreement has been concluded.

The UK Government appeared to reject these proposals outright with a spokesperson for the Prime Minister quoted as saying

“We would never accept arrangements and access to UK fishing waters which are incompatible with our status as an independent coastal state.”

In practice, access arrangements in place during the transition period cannot automatically rollover into 2021 because the provisions of the UK Fisheries Act on licensing foreign vessels will come into force on 1 January 2021. To bypass the requirement to license foreign vessels, the UK Government would need to introduce regulations under the UK Fisheries Act. This would be subject to debate and approval by the UK Parliament which, at the time of writing, is currently in Christmas recess.  

Quota shares

The heated debates around access to waters are to some extent a red herring (no pun intended). This is because access is useless unless you have quota to catch.

The UK, along with the EU and other coastal states, has an obligation under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to jointly manage shared fish stocks. 2021 will be the first year that the UK will negotiate quota for shared stocks as an independent coastal state. 

It was anticipated that the UK and EU would agree quota shares for shared fish stocks as part of a new UK-EU fisheries agreement. However, due to the lack of progress in UK-EU negotiations, EU fisheries ministers agreed to set provisional quotas for fish stocks which it controls exclusively in EU waters. The provisional quotas include a proportionate roll-over of the existing 2020 fishing opportunities for the first three months of 2021. This provides some continuity until March, allowing more time to negotiate a longer-term agreement on quota with the UK.

In the long-term, a failure to agree quota and access on a collaborative basis may lead to countries unilaterally setting their own quota. This raises concerns about the potential for overfishing. These issues are discussed further in SPICe’s briefing ‘UK-EU Future Relationship Negotiations: fisheries’ and blog ‘Risks to North Sea fish stocks and wildlife if post-Brexit fisheries negotiations go awry’.

Conflicts at sea

A sudden restriction in reciprocal access to waters resulting from a ‘no deal’ Brexit would potentially increase the risk of conflicts at sea between fishing vessels.  A recent BBC News article outlined plans for deployment of Royal Navy vessels to protect UK fishing waters in the event of no-deal. In the article, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Humza Yousaf MSP, is quoted as saying:

“This UK government gunboat diplomacy is not welcome in Scottish waters. We will protect our fisheries where necessary. Police Scotland and Marine Scotland have primacy to do that.”

A recent SPICe guest blog ‘Troubled waters? Enforcement of fisheries and vessel conflicts in post-Brexit seas’ explores enforcement issues in more detail.

Marine Scotland fisheries protection vessel MPV Hirta

Trade in seafood

The EU is a key trading partner in both imports and exports in seafood. From 2014-19, on average, just under a third of the UK’s seafood is imported from the EU and just over two-thirds of the UK’s seafood exports goes to EU markets.

A no deal Brexit would be likely to impact trade in seafood in two key ways:

  1. Tariffs: In the absence of a free-trade agreement, seafood imports and exports to the EU will change from zero tariff, to a range of tariffs depending on the species
  2. Non-tariff barriers: Non-tariff barriers to trade include any impacts that may increase delays at borders such as new requirements for customs checks and paperwork to export seafood to the EU.

The current border closure at Dover due to the spread of a new coronavirus variant in southeast England provides an insight into the potential impacts of border disruption resulting from no deal scenario, and further hinders the ability of seafood exporters to absorb potential costs. In a statement issued on 21 December, Seafood Scotland outlined the challenges faced by the industry:

“The seafood sector is hanging on by a thread, and this latest blow is beyond devastating. 21 and 22 December are the busiest days of every year, as Europe traditionally enjoys premium seafood as part of their Christmas Eve celebrations – this week was to be the shining light between an horrendous 2020 and looming Brexit transition. Many companies have been working flat out for a week to fulfil massive orders from Europe.”

Photo by Samuel C. on Unsplash

Will there be a competitive advantage for Northern Ireland?

In November, a BBC News article outlined the possibility that Scottish fishing vessels operating from the west coast of Scotland may seek to re-register their boats to ports in Northern Ireland to take advantage of the different trading relationship with the EU provided by the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Under the agreement, goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (an EU Member State) will not be subject to the same checks required by goods entering the EU from the rest of the UK. This could put Scottish fishers at a competitive disadvantage to their Northern Irish competitors who fish in the same waters.

It’s not clear at this stage how these factors will play out, but it is possible these issues will emerge again in the new year as the new relationship with the EU sets in.

Finally, it’s worth recognising that fish do not pay attention to international maritime borders. Many of the most sought-after species in UK waters are migratory, spending various stages of their life cycle in different country’s waters. Defining who has the right to what fish is therefore more complex than media headlines portray. This is why international law seeks to encourage cooperation and collaboration in fisheries management rather than exclusion and isolation that risks causing overexploitation of a natural public resource.

Damon Davies

Researcher, Environment, Rural, Constitution and International Research Unit

Title image by Tony Tang on Unsplash