The EU role in the North Sea must diminish so Scotland’s can grow

My piece for ThinkScotland on why the future of UK fisheries management must avoid the failings of the CFP


When the UK and the other northern European fishing nations - Norway, Denmark (whose realm includes Greenland) and Ireland - were contemplating joining the European Economic Community (EEC) back in the early 1970s, the existing members began to take an active interest in matters maritime. Until then, despite significant fishing interests, the original six member states (only one of which was land-locked) foresaw no need to regulate the sea.

Equal access for all

All that changed in 1970 when the original six states adopted what became known as the ‘equal access’ rule, granting European fishermen freedom to fish all ‘community’ waters. When the maritime nations joined, they were obliged to sign up to this fishy deal. Norway balked, and never again sought membership. Greenland eventually seceded from the EU, (thus far the only part of the Union to seek and secure divorce). Only the UK, Denmark and Ireland remained.

Over the next forty years the Danish, Irish and British fleets would change almost beyond measure. Technology improved and stocks came under increasing pressure, all exacerbated by the equal access approach; why limit the activities of the home fleet when the fleets from elsewhere would simply catch the fish. And all the while the EU saw its role as fish allocator in chief certainly not fish conservator. Norway on the other hand, husbanded its resources carefully, permitted access to its waters only on the base of trade or transfer and instituted a discard ban in mid 1990.

During this period nations around the globe began to extend the limits of their territorial waters. The Cod Wars fought between the UK and Iceland were a direct result of Iceland’s imposition of ever more extensive territorial limits. Iceland’s establishment of a 200-mile limit in 1976 all but did for ports of Grimsby, Hull and Fleetwood. Other nations followed suite, gaining further economic advantage from what became known as their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Unfortunately for the UK, attempts to gain economic advantage from British waters fell foul of the ‘equal access for all European fishermen’ clause.

If only the EU, as it later became, had been any good at managing this rich resource the criticisms would have eventually faded away, but one thing became clear from the get-go, the EU was ill-equipped to manage fisheries. Despite constant attempts to reform the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) the flaws of the policy owe much to those early days when all that mattered was getting access to some of the richest fishing grounds in the world; allocation not conservation.

As UK fisheries embark upon the greatest change since the UK joined the Common Market, the measure of the UK Government’s commitment to fishing will be tested.

Who’s been fishing in my sea?

The North Sea fleets of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France fish mainly in waters of the UK. They have to, that’s where the fish are. The French National Fisheries Commission noted that exclusion from UK waters would deprive the fleet of up to 80% of their catch. A recent report by Ian Napier of Scotland's NAFC Marine Centre reveals the stark reality of fishing opportunities in the North Sea. EU boats caught seven times more fish in UK waters than UK boats caught in their waters. This equates to around 650,000 tonnes of fish and shellfish, worth more than £400m each year.

Whilst the UK will continue to follow the advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) when it comes to the setting of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC), there must be an appreciation of the imbalance between who catches what fish where. The UK’s share of the catch must reflect the reality of the fishing grounds. That will mean an end to relative stability as we know it. After all, the current share reflects neither the current catch nor the tonnage of fish within the British EEZ nor even the quota (since internal quota trade allows for adjustments).

As the terms of brexit are discussed, key for the UK fishing industry will be the access entitlement of EU vessels to British waters. Equal access for all is unlikely to survive without reform. It may well be that market access and access to territorial waters become counterbalancing elements of the negotiations. Also likely to be under the spotlight will be the issue of flag vessels. Again, the current arrangements are unlikely to survive intact.

Next steps

At present, the TACs of the North Sea (as well as ‘quota transfers’, proposals for joint technical measures and issues related to control and enforcement) are determined by bilateral negotiation between Norway and the EU, the two stakeholders in the North Sea. Until the UK brexits, this arrangement will continue.

However, thereafter a fundamental change will come. Given that the northern North Sea is recognised by ICES as a separate fishing ‘unit’ (Area IVa), it would seem sensible that the TAC for this zone be determined by the UK and Norway alone. The TAC for the southern North Sea (Area IVb and IVc) would be resolved by a trilateral negotiation between the UK, Norway and the EU.

And once the seas have calmed

Fisheries is devolved. Once the brexit deal is concluded, management of Scotland’s seas must return to Scotland. All future negotiations between the UK and external partners such as Norway, Iceland, the Faroes or the EU must include Scotland not just as a full partner, but as primus inter pares. It is clear that in the future, Scotland will need to play a key on all external fisheries management bodies.

Whatever form future UK fisheries management takes it must avoid the manifest failings of the Common Fisheries Policy. If that is all that is achieved, it will be a big step forward. The future is not yet written but we must have the pens (and the plan) ready.