Is the UK really allowed to catch more fish because of Brexit?

British politicians have made bold claims about the results of negotiations, but the reality is far more nuanced

The UK fisheries industry contributes 0.1 per cent of the country's GDP, but it was one of the main sticking points in Brexit negotiations. PA
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British politicians earlier this week praised the results of the EU-UK 2023 fishing quota negotiations, saying the UK will be able to catch 30,000 more tonnes of fish than if the island nation had remained within the European bloc.

The UK fishing industry will be allowed to catch 140,000 tonnes of fish in 2023, instead of 110,000 tonnes if Brexit had not happened, Fisheries minister Mark Spencer said on Tuesday.

The figure was presented as a political win by pro-Brexit figures such as Daily Mail journalist Andrew Pierce, who tweeted that it was a “positive benefit” of leaving the EU. It also made the front page of the Daily Telegraph.

Yet the reality is more nuanced, scientists say.

While it’s true that the 2020 Trade and Co-operation Agreement between the EU and the UK gave Britain access to more of the fish swimming in its waters, quotas have increased across Europe because fish stocks have been better managed in the past decade, Michel Kaiser, professor of fisheries conservation at Heriot Watt University, told The National.

The amount of fish that the UK can catch in 2023 has actually remained the same or similar to previous years. The tonnage was also 140,000 in 2022. In 2021, it was slightly higher, at 150,000 tonnes, and in 2020, a bit lower, at 130,000 tonnes.

So why are politicians latching on to it now?

And how does the UK negotiate fishing tonnages in shared waters with its neighbours?

Why are fishing quotas important?

The UK fisheries industry contributes 0.1 per cent of the country's GDP, but it was one of the main sticking points in Brexit negotiations.

The industry grabs the UK public’s imagination because it’s part of the country’s historical heritage.

“There’s a love-hate relationship in the media for the fishing industry,” said Professor Kaiser. “On the one hand, they’re seen as the last hunter-gatherers, fishing on the high seas in harsh conditions to bring fish home to eat. On the other hand, green organisations are also focusing on the less positive aspects of fishing and its environmental impact.”

Today, the UK does not actually consume most of the fish that it catches. Before Brexit, more than two-thirds of UK fisheries' production was exported to the EU market, while local consumption was imported from non-EU partners such as Iceland and Norway.

The kind of fish traditionally favoured in the UK, such as cod and haddock are now found further north because of historic overfishing and climate change reasons, said Professor Kaiser.

The UK is a net importer of fish.

What did the EU and the UK negotiate?

Before Brexit, fish was regarded as a shared resource across Europe. The quota for each species was allocated to countries based on their historical track record of catching those fish.

“It might seem bizarre but you have to appreciate history here,” said Professor Kaiser.

“For example the Dutch fishing industry really developed the Dover sole fishery, so they got a higher allocation than other countries even though those fish lived in UK or French waters.”

EU countries caught 12 per cent of their fish in UK waters. This figure varied significantly among countries, ranging from less than 1 per cent for Spain to 33 per cent for Denmark, 38 per cent for Ireland and 43 per cent for Belgium, according to the EU Commission.

Conversely, the UK caught 10 per cent of its total catches in the bloc’s exclusive economic zone.

After Brexit, the UK claimed the right to the fish that live in its waters and negotiated to increase its fishing opportunities progressively by 25 per cent between 2021 and 2026.

After that, the UK can theoretically ban EU ships from fishing in its waters, though that’s unlikely, because the EU would probably implement stiff retaliatory measures. “Sometimes, it’s in the interest of UK fishermen to fish in other countries’ waters, so there is still the facility for the mutual sharing of stocks,” said Professor Kaiser.

How do the EU and the UK calculate how much fish they can catch?

The EU and the UK receive scientific advice every year or biannually from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), a scientific advisory body based in Denmark and funded by its 20 member countries including the UK.

Scientists from the UK and Europe continue to collaborate. “Fish don’t respect borders, so our approach to understanding fish stock has to be regional and hence very collaborative,” said Professor Kaiser.

This scientific advice informs quota variations on both sides each year.

The EU and the UK are not bound by ICES recommendations. They also take into account socio-economic needs of fishermen.

The EU and the UK on Tuesday agreed on catch levels for 2023 for 69 fish stocks.

The EU’s quota for 2023 is 350,000 tonnes of fish.

Is the UK catching more fish thanks to Brexit?

Yes and no.

Brexit has enabled the UK to gradually catch more of its fish while EU countries’ quotas in its waters diminish.

But quotas have gone up for all countries because of better stock management, said Professor Kaiser.

“Irrespective of whether it’s the UK, France, or Belgium — everybody will have benefited from that but in different ways depending on how much share of each particular fish stock they can have,” he said.

What do conservationists think?

The Financial Times reported that for 2023, the UK and the EU set 52 per cent of the shared fisheries’ catch limits above scientific guidance. It's a slight improvement to 2022, when that figure reached 65 per cent.

Charles Clover, executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation, an ocean conservation charity, told The Financial Times that both parties involved in the negotiations are greenlighting overfishing.

“We were assured repeatedly that this would not happen after Brexit. Well, wake up everyone, it is happening,” he said.

Professor Kaiser disagreed.

Unlike traditional farming on land, it’s very difficult to be perfectly selective while fishing, he said. “When you set your quotas, you need to acknowledge you’ll catch some of the other species even if you’d rather not because of issues of sustainability,” he said.

“The problem is that if you don’t adjust the quota to allow for that complexity, you’ll make fishing economically unviable for fishermen and almost force them to operate in an illegal way because there’s a limit to how selective they can be.”

What other countries does the UK negotiate fishing quotas with?

In total the UK has secured fishing opportunities worth £756 million for 2023 ($913 million), equivalent to 660,000 tonnes of fish.

In addition to the £282 million ($340 million) fishing agreement with the EU, the UK secured a deal with North-East Atlantic coastal states, which include the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Russia worth £256 million ($309 million).

The UK also struck a trilateral deal with the EU and Norway on six North Sea fish stocks, including cod, haddock and herring worth £213 million ($257 million) to the UK fishing industry.

In a separate deal with Norway, the UK will be allowed to catch fish worth £5 million ($6 million) in 2023, including 30,000 tonnes of whitefish stocks, and 20,000 tonnes of herring.

Updated: December 23, 2022, 1:47 PM