Trick or Treat: Brexit is a Halloween Horror Story for Europe’s Fisheries

Brexit almost guarantees fisheries conflict between EU countries and the UK. This blog explores past tensions and future possibilities in the region's fisheries management.


by Dr. Michael Harte and Dr. Rachel Tiller*

As the United Kingdom careens wildly towards Brexit on October 31, 2019, there is much speculation about what this means for European Union and UK fisheries. What’s most important from a marine governance perspective is that Brexit almost guarantees fisheries conflict in some form. A worst-case scenario could see armed conflict occur between EU countries and the UK that may draw in other Northeast Atlantic countries including Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. A best-case conflict scenario is a trade war that could financially ruin seafood companies in the UK and Europe. More fundamentally, Brexit undermines the entire Common Fisheries Policy, with uncertain implications in the long and short term.

Disagreements over marine resources are nothing new in this area: conflicts between fishers claiming access rights to the same fishing grounds have long existed. The region has a long history of fisheries disputes and conflict including the Cod Wars of the 1950s and 1970s, the Mackerel Wars of 2011 to 2014, the Scallop Wars of 2012 and 2018, and the ongoing Irish-Scottish conflict over fisheries access to waters around the islet of Rockall. There is also longstanding disagreement over the management of fisheries resources in the Svalbard Fisheries Protection Zone, which has resulted in a number of arrests made by the Norwegian coast guard over the years. Brexit may amplify existing conflicts and create new ones because as things stand now, the UK and Europe will no longer have harmonized fisheries management policies or access arrangements under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The UK will regain control of its territorial waters, declare its own Exclusive Economic Zone up to 200 nautical miles from its shores, and exclude any European-flagged fishing boats that they do not have separate bi-, tri- or multilateral agreements with from its waters—which at the moment is no one. 

Most UK fish stocks, however, straddle international boundaries with EU and non-EU countries, and as such are bound by the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the implementing agreements that have arisen from this. The United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement is one of these. This agreement makes ongoing international collaboration between the UK and its neighbors both necessary and inevitable. What is less certain are the form and outcomes of negotiations over the rights of UK and EU vessels to fish in each other’s waters. The EU will in fact have to renegotiate its share of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for stocks that are shared with the UK and other non-EU neighboring countries such as Norway and the Faroe Islands. It is also likely that these negotiations will be influenced by the importance of retaining full access to EU markets for their caught and processed fish without punitive tariffs.

These negotiations will not happen overnight, and in the absence of a fisheries agreement, conflict between UK fishers, UK maritime authorities, and European-flagged fishing vessels that continue to fish in UK waters (claiming historic access rights) is almost inevitable. A poorly enacted Brexit could create such chaos in the UK that UK maritime and fisheries enforcement will be in no position to react effectively against vessels fishing illegally in UK waters. The UK only has 12 vessels to patrol all its waters at this time, further limiting its ability to deter illegal fishing. We can speculate that this could raise the specter of UK-flagged fishing vessels taking international law into their own hands by taking direct action against European vessels fishing in UK waters. The possibility also exists that Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Norway could join with the EU to dispute the boundaries of the UK’s new EEZ. In this scenario, the UK could see fish wars on multiple fronts, with its fisheries patrols unable to be everywhere.

In addition to direct conflicts, the rest of the seafood chain in the UK and the EU alike will suffer. This is because a closed fisheries border, excluding all but UK fishers, will have profound implications for European fishers, who have been in the majority in these waters for some time. In fact, from 2012–2014, EU fishing vessels landed 58 percent of all catch in the UK, worth some £400 million, or 43 percent of the value of all UK landings. However, at the same time, and more alarming for UK fisheries-export industries, more than £1.3bn of the nearly £1.89bn in total UK seafood exports in 2017 went to the EU—£727m to France and Spain alone. French fishermen have threatened to block these exports if they lose access to fishing grounds in UK waters. Even without a physical blockade, UK-caught fish will be subject to a range of tariffs and complex catch documentation that fish caught in UK waters cannot be imported into the EU without.

A trade war such as this would be devastating to seafood companies in both the UK and the EU. UK and European fishing companies have developed close business ties, with much investment and business codependency. Boats on the water are just the tip of the iceberg of a very valuable and interconnected European seafood supply chain. Brexit puts this all at risk, and in the short term could financially ruin UK and EU seafood companies alike—and greatly affect the livelihoods of commercial fishers around Europe. 

Most fundamentally, Brexit rocks the very foundation of the EU Common Fisheries Policy. The allocation of a share of TAC between member states is central to the functioning of the CFP. Member states are allocated a fixed share of the TACs as a national quota; this fixed percentage is known as the relative stability key and varies depending on the fish stock or species in question. With the loss of access to UK fisheries, the CFP’s bedrock policy of relative stability will be wrecked on the shoals of Brexit. In the long term, the UK could align with Norway, Iceland. and the Faroe Islands, giving the EU little negotiating room given the few fish stocks of its own that it has left. The EU will be forced to rethink how it allocated fish quotas between its member states. Each member state will be out for as much as it can get relative to the other member states.

With a glass half-empty in hand (yes, Brexit will impact wine imports to the UK, too), we can speculate that Brexit impacts nearly every fishery and species caught commercially in the Northeast Atlantic—from scallops and mackerel to haddock and cod—since the stocks of all these fish are shared by the EU and the UK. These stocks could be decimated as each country refuses to recognize fishing quotas imposed by the other. Like much of Brexit, the fisheries situation is complex and uncertain. Conflict of some kind is inevitable. What is less clear is what the scale and level of conflict will be. Past tensions still simmer and could easily escalate to armed conflict and a long-term standoff while multilateral negotiations occur. On November 1 and Día de los Muertos, and absent a major change of heart by both the UK and the European Union, let’s hope that disruptions of the supply of cod and haddock to the local fish-and-chip shop are the worst of the consequences of Brexit and the new fisheries governance regime of the Northeast Atlantic. Alas, we fear that Brexit will see a destabilization of fisheries governance in the Northeast Atlantic that will be worsened by nationalist sentiment in Europe. At stake is confidence in, and support for, the management of the region’s shared fisheries, the economic viability of fisheries, and the sustainability of stocks. Hopefully, we are wrong.


* Dr. Michael Harte is a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University in the US, and Dr. Rachel Tiller (@racheltiller) is a research scientist at SINTEF Ocean in Norway.