Fishing: A Red Line Issue


It may be a coincidence of timing but the day after the NFFO/SFF piled on the pressure with a major event in the Westminster Parliament, the Government has announced that getting a better deal for UK fishermen will be one of its five key negotiating principles with the EU.

The BBC reports that fishing, “is the only industry to figure specifically in the list of negotiating priorities and is described as a ‘red line issue’.”

BBC report


The 1st of February 2020 is unlikely to seem much different from the day before; but in fact, for the UK fishing industry, the date will mark a dramatic watershed our fortunes. Little will seem different, because the UK will remain subject to all aspects of EU law for the remaining 11 months of 2020, including all aspects of the Common Fisheries Policy.

In international law however, the UK will from that date, become an independent coastal state, and in EU parlance, a third country.

The UK will no longer be represented in any EU decision-making fora – including the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament or regional groups of member states – but during the remainder of 2020 it will be negotiating fisheries agreements as an independent party. This is where the change triggered on 31st January will begin to be seen.


The transition period has been drastically truncated from when it was originally envisaged. It no longer includes a December Council when the UK would (under the Withdrawal Agreement) be “consulted” but would have no vote. Questions remain about how the UK will be included in the ongoing discussions between EU and Norway, on supplementary cod recovery measures in the North Sea and other aspects of the CFP. Dialogue will take place through some vehicle, but it is an open question whether “consultation” or being one voice amongst 15 leaves the UK in a weaker or stronger position for the remaining months of 2020.

Framework Agreement and Annual Negotiations

More significantly, in parallel during the first 6 months of the year, negotiations will take place on a future UK/EU framework agreement. The aim is to finalise these talks by the beginning of July, but they may or may not conclude before negotiations for an annual fisheries agreement for 2021 begin.

This is where things will begin to be very different from the past 40 years. Whatever progress has been made on the framework agreement, the UK will negotiate directly with the EU as an independent coastal state, with ultimate say over who may fish in UK waters and under what conditions. In the North Sea the EU will control around 20% of the waters, in Western Waters around 50%. The UK will make clear that whilst remaining committed to its international obligations on sustainable fishing, access will be granted to fish in its Exclusive Economic Zone, only in return for a shift in quota shares to reflect the resources located in UK waters. It is not insignificant that the EU takes (in value terms) around 5 times as much from UK waters as the UK fleet takes from EU waters, providing the UK with important negotiating leverage.

January 2021

1st January 2021 will be the date at which the seismic changes underway will begin to manifest themselves on the ground and at sea. There will be no automatic access to fish in each other’s waters. Access will be negotiated. As will quota shares.

The arrangements should be concluded in a fisheries agreement between the UK and the EU before the end of the year. There is a risk that there is no agreement by then, in which case UK and EU fleets will be permitted to fish only in their respective EEZs – until an agreement is reached.

This is no different from the current arrangements between the EU and Norway. From time to time the annual round of negotiations fail to conclude before Christmas and the New Year opens with fishing confined to the parties’ own respective zones – until a new agreement is reached in reconvened talks in the early months of the next year.


Parallel is a word which will be heard often over the course of the next 11 months.

Negotiations on the future economic and political relationship between the UK and the EU will take place in parallel to the fisheries negotiations.

Many strands under separate headings will take place: aviation, security, tariffs and trade quotas etc.

Parallel fisheries agreements will also be negotiated with Norway and Faeroes.

The expectation is that the fisheries experts within government, within Defra, will negotiate the fisheries components, whilst the overall negotiations will be coordinated by No 10 and the Cabinet office.

The EU has made its position clear: any overall deal will be contingent on the UK agreeing to the status quo on access and quota shares. President Macron has said that a 25-year deal, essentially tying the UK back into something close to the CFP is the price of a free trade deal.

The UK has been equally clear: Both sides need a trade deal but as an independent coastal state, the UK will grant access for non-UK vessels to fish, only on negotiated terms. And those terms will include addressing the quota shares which currently leaves the UK with only around 40% of the fish caught in its own waters.


No one with an understanding of how fishing was sacrificed in 1973, as a pawn in the terms of entry to the then European Economic Community, is likely to dismiss the risk that fishing could again be considered expendable for other political and economic objectives.

On the other hand, the fishing issue has a very high visibility and, politically, the Government is unlikely to want to be accused of repeating history. The Prime Minister, senior ministerial colleagues, many voices within the governing party and indeed across Parliament, recognise that the UK has been tied into an asymmetric and essentially exploitative relationship on fisheries with the EU for 40 years. The Government has repeatedly and explicitly promised to end this distortion.

In many respects fishing is seen as a litmus test for Brexit and all the signs are that the UK will take a robust stance. The Government’s confirmation that fishing is one of its five top objectives provides confidence that things will be different for fishing this time around.


The NFFO’s role is straightforward: it is to hold the Government to account in delivering the promises and commitments it has made on fisheries. Those coastal communities which have atrophied as a direct result of political decisions made, in the lead up to the UK’s entry to the EEC, have a legitimate expectation that their fortunes will change.

To that end the NFFO and Scottish Fishermen’s Federation fifth parliamentary event in two years was held this week to underscore the industry’s key messages:

  • The Common Fisheries Policy has worked systematically to the disadvantage of the UK fishing industry for 40 years
  • Leaving the EU provides the opportunity to redress that balance, as the UK will become an independent coastal state. with the rights and responsibilities associated with that status
  • There are high expectations that a new deal will be delivered on fisheries that will lay the foundations for a vibrant and sustainable future
  • All eyes are on the Government to deliver and our expectation is that the 31st January – will mark the beginnings of that seismic shift for the better