EU Referendum: Fisheries

The purpose of this paper is to consider whether UK membership of the EU provides an advantage to the UK’s fishing sector.


The purpose of this paper is to consider whether UK membership of the EU provides an advantage to the UK’s fishing sector.

I am a substitute member of the European Parliament’s Fisheries (PECH) Committee and a full member of the Environment (ENVI) Committee which deals with food issues. I am the spokesman of my party for Fisheries. I worked for the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation for five years, during the height of the ‘cod crisis’.

British Fisheries become European

The original European Economic Community (EEC) had no rules governing fisheries. It was the prospect of the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Norway (maritime nations with extensive fishing grounds) seeking membership of the Community, that prompted the original six members to declare fish stocks a ‘common resource’ and agree that henceforth all EEC member states would have ‘equal access’ to Community waters. The regulation[1] was adopted in 1970 just before the maritime states’ applications to join were received. A condition of the UK’s membership of the EEC was therefore acceptance of this hastily drafted rule.

It is important to note that the early rules governing European fisheries were tools of access and (later) allocation of entitlement to catch fish. They were not envisaged as a tool of conservation, and many of the issues which have beset European fisheries since then stem from this fact.

Much has been written on the negotiations that preceded the maritime nations joining the EEC[2]. The result was that in the end only three nations joined; Norway withdrew its application.

The CFP is born

Following a crisis in the herring fishery,[3] the nine members of the EU introduced rules limiting the tonnage of fish that could be landed[4].  It was agreed that for each fish species an annual catch figure would be set, capping the tonnage of fish which could be removed from the sea. This species-specific Total Allowable Catch (TAC) would then be divided between the fleets of the EU. To ensure fair allocation, the national share (or quota) was determined according to the tonnage of each species caught by each national fleet during a given reference period. The resulting quotas were then codified as the Relative Stability Key. Thereafter, once the annual TAC is agreed at the end of each year, the national quotas are automatically calculated.

From the outset the system had a number of flaws, many of which remain today:

For the first time fisheries management was politicised, with the Annual December fisheries negotiations quickly becoming a national stand-off, creating a gulf between ‘scientific’ TACs and ‘political’ TACs.

Limiting catch via TAC created a significant and enduring problem, since at no point were catches limited; only landings. The discrepancy - the fish discarded over the side - would create problems for scientific assessment and stock sustainability.

The Relative Stability Key upon which quotas depend had a number of shortcomings: (i) it underestimated the catch of certain fish species (notably those with a low value in the 70s, which were then discarded, but today have a significant market, e.g. saithe, monkfish, hake); (ii) it monetised the ‘quota share resulting in trade and borrowing against the asset; (iii) it created a significant obstacle to new entrants; (iv) setting quota share based upon the state of the stocks in the 70s, it has failed to address ecosystem change, e.g. tuna in British waters[5] ; (v) it failed to recognise the issue created by mixed fisheries[6] in general and ‘choke’ species[7] in particular.

As the CFP evolved, the TAC system morphed from a tool of allocation to one of conservation. Successive December Council’s depressed the quota of species in decline, but only succeeded in increasing discards, as fishermen sought to remain within the law while continuing to fish for other species in mixed fisheries[8].

How to solve a problem of your own creation?

By 1992 the capacity of the EU fleet to catch fish and the quantity of fish available to be caught were seriously out of kilter. Much of this had been driven by significant EU boat building grants[9]. Whilst this made the fleet safer, it also increased the ability of fishermen to catch fish. The reform that year recognised the problem and sought to ‘conserve available and accessible living marine aquatic resources and to provide rational and responsible exploitation on a sustainable basis, in appropriate economic and social conditions for the sector[10].

In addition, to reduce the pressures on stocks, the Commission sought to encourage vessels to pursue alternative fisheries outside EU waters, resulting in the signing of a number of fishing agreements with third countries[11]. The result was simply exporting a European problem to Africa. The Commission also sought to open up new fisheries within EU waters, and grants were made available to re-rig vessels to fish in ever deeper waters where quotas did not apply. The consequent impact on this vulnerable ecosystem resulted in the extension of the quota system to deep water species in 2002[12].

By 2002 the issue of too many boats chasing too few fish had reached crisis level. Emergency measures were introduced to protect the cod in northern waters. Monies were made available for decommissioning, vessels were broken up, quotas were depressed still further, discards increased (again for the most vulnerable stocks) and fish were taken off the menu.

How is the CFP faring?

In the space of three decades, the EU’s management measures had taken a profitable, well managed resource, providing direct employment to 350,000 people in fishing and processing and providing 5.4 million jobs in in the wider economy, and nearly destroyed it.

Blame cannot rest solely with the European Commission. Member states were complicit in driving quotas ever higher during their December deliberations. Fishermen too cannot escape blame; illegal ‘black’ landings had a pernicious impact on the stocks and the science. However, because of the nature of fisheries management, the provision of legal solution rested solely with the EU.

Attempts to introduce greater levels of subsidiarity to management, to bring decisions closer to the sea basin being managed, to involve fishermen in the management of fish stocks were resisted by the European Commission.

EU clout in fisheries management

The EU is party to several fisheries agreements with countries with which it shares a sea border. In the last five years, the migration pattern of mackerel shifted, resulting in a significant abundance of mackerel in the waters of Iceland and the Faroes.  As signatories to the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements with these countries, the quota share of the TAC allocated to each nation is established by formula. However, arguing that there was a greater abundance of the fish in their territorial waters, these two nations embarked upon a titanic fishery. The two countries gave themselves a unilateral quota of 150,000 tonnes, resulting in the catch increasing by almost 50%, well above the replacement rate of the species.

As a result, the fishery which is primarily prosecuted by the fleets of Scotland and Norway, came under severe pressure. The hard-fought accreditation of the Mackerel Industry Northern Sustainability Alliance (MINSA) by the Marine Stewardship Council was lost[13].

Resolution of the stand-off was finally secured in 2014, when the share of the catch awarded to the Faroes was increased by 12.5% (and the share of the Scottish entitlement reduced by 15%)[14]. Scottish fishermen spent a great deal of time and effort lobbying the European Commission to secure a settlement that did not reward those over-fishing but the Commission failed to deliver. 

It is worth noting that in this stand-off, the Faroe Islands (population 49,469) secured a better settlement than Scotland despite the alleged ‘clout’ that accrues from the UK’s membership  the EU (population 500m). The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the Faroese may catch their share of the stock in EU waters, where the quality of the fish is significantly greater[15].

The CFP Today: the coming storm

The recent reform of the CFP which took effect from 2014[16] included a commitment to implement a ban on discarding fish at sea. In its present form the discard ban will likely do harm to the Scottish fishing industry, whilst doing little to encourage fish stock viability. An overabundance of certain fish species within a mixed fishery[17] for which a quota is inadequate - the species are termed ‘choke’ species because they choke off all fishing - would see all fishing halted in certain areas not because of a dearth of fish but rather because of an abundance resulting in rapid quota exhaustion. This must be addressed as a priority and I have written to Fishing Commissioner Vella to address this issue. Change, however, will be slow, if it comes at all; exposing fishermen to greater challenge at the very time when the shellfish and the fleet are in robust good health.

Local management

In recent years there has been much talk on increasing local management of sea basins. This talk led to the establishment of Regional Advisory Councils (RACs) in 2004[18]. The plan was to involve stakeholders in the decision making process. As the Commission explained, ‘The purpose of regionalisation is twofold: moving away from micromanagement at Union level, and ensuring that rules are adapted to the specificities of each fishery and sea area (‘region’).’

In 2014, the Commission published its plans to revise the organisation of Advisory councils to give them a ‘stronger voice and more balanced representation in fisheries policy’[19]. Whilst a welcome step, it is not enough. The plans stop short of including fishermen and other stakeholders in actual management. The Commission have got to be realistic about devolving management to the basin level.

An alternative is withdrawal from the CFP whilst remaining in the EU. There is no doubt that this would be welcomed by fishermen, removing them from the strictures of the CFP while maintaining access to the single market. Under such an approach, fisheries management would be conducted on a level more sensitive to British fishing needs and interests, in much the same way that Iceland and Norway have managed their marine resources. North Sea TACs would require an additional bilateral negotiation between the UK and the EU to complement the existing EU-Norway negotiations before they are set. With the devolved settlement in the UK, there is little doubt that the Scottish Government would gain a much greater influence over fisheries management.[20]

Of course withdrawal from the CFP could be achieved by withdrawal from the EU. However such a step would require a necessary guarantee of access to the single market.

Free Movement of People

The Scottish fishing industry both at sea and ashore depends upon workers from out with the UK. Despite significant employment opportunities in the fish processing industry for UK workers, many of the plants across Scotland are dominated by workers from out with Scotland:[21] 84% in 2014[22]. It is debatable whether the exclusion of these workers should the UK leave the EU would result in greater recruitment of Scots into the sector. There is a real risk that the processing sector would struggle to meet demand.

The Single Market

The UK exports approximately half a billion pounds worth of seafood to the EU every year[23]. The absence of tariffs and other barriers to trade and the establishment of common food standards have been a benefit to the marketing of Scottish seafood. Were the UK to leave the EU, it is unlikely that continental customers would be able to satisfy their seafood appetite from other sources, given the nature of stock management and the cost of trans-shipment from further afield. However the need for tariff free trade would be an early priority for both producers and customers. 

The Verdict

The Common Fisheries Policy, established as a tool of allocation, is not fit for purpose. Attempts to make the allocation tool into a conservation tool have created perverse outcomes and done great damage to the Scottish fishing fleet, and to the stocks upon which it depends.  The politicisation of fisheries management, the exclusion of fishermen from management, the ‘one net fits all’ approach, the time taken to develop fisheries legislation andthe lowest common denominator approach are all a direct result of the CFP.

Norway, fearful of the risk to its fishing industry, declined to join the EEC in 1972. Since then its fishing industry has gone from strength to strength. The ability to introduce management measures at a local level, the involvement of fishermen and their ideas into the management process, and the clout they have during bilateral negotiations with the EU are a reminder that fisheries management can be quite different.

The opportunity to leave the CFP afforded by the upcoming referendum must be weighed against the potential impact withdrawal could have on access to the continental market.  Further assurances would be required before this step could safely be taken

The alternative to leaving the EU is fundamental reform of the CFP.  However, prospects for reform seem timid at best. Greater subsidiarity, deletion of the ‘equal access to a common resource’ clause, and the empowerment of the advisory councils with real management responsibilities would go some of the way to addressing the deficiencies in the present system.  Whether they would go as far as the fishermen would like, remains to be seen.





[1] Council Regulation (EEC) 2141/70;



[4] Council Regulation (EEC) 170/83;







[11] List of EU Bilateral Fisheries Agreements and Expiry Dates - Cape Verde 22/12/2018; Comoros 31/12/2016; Ivory Coast 30/06/2016; Gabon 23/7/2016; Greenland 31/12/2020; Guinea-Bissau 23/11/2017; Liberia 8/12/2020; Madagascar 31/12/2018; Mauritania 15/11/2019; Mauritius 27/1/2017; Morocco 27/2/27/2/2018; Sao Tome and Principe 22/5/2018; Senegal 19/11/2019; Seychelles 17/1/2020; Faeroe Islands- Signed 2006; Norway - Signed 2009.






[17]   A mixed stock fishery is a fishery whose stock consists of fish that are of a variety of ages, sizes, species, geographic or genetic origins or any combination of these variables.