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Overfishing in the EU, Will Brexit Help End it?

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

What is overfishing?

Simply defined, ocean overfishing is the taking of wildlife from the sea at rates too high for fished species to replace themselves. These isolated instances of overfishing are causing regional depletion that is highly disruptive to the food chain; and together, these isolated regional instances became global problems by the late 20th century.

Amongst the Member States of the EU, in 2017, 55 percent of fishing limits were set above scientific advice, according to the report ‘Taking Stock’.

By continuing to overfish, the industry continues to undermine itself. Overfishing only quickens the demise of Europe’s fish stocks, and consequently the health of the seas on which all of us depend on.

Image Source: Greenpeace Unearthed

EU Practice

The EU has its own method of tackling this issue, known as the Common Fisheries Policy, on which the UK became subject to on joining in the EU in 1972. The CFP embraced the principle of equal access to the territorial waters of Member States and is ultimately a system of community management of fishery resources and conservation measures.

Following the CFP, it is the EU, not the individual Member States, that negotiate treaties with third party countries for access to EU territorial waters and vice versa. Every year, the Council of Ministers sets total allowable catches for the main fish stocks in EU waters and divides them into quotas to be allocated to each Member State. Freedom of movement within the EU means that UK quotas are also held by other Member States exercising their given right of establishment in the UK.

The CFP has gone through successive updates, the most recent of which took effect on 1 January 2014. This change was set out to be a modern reform of the CFP, the current policy states that between 2015 and 2020, catch limits should be set to be sustainable and maintain fish stocks in the long term. The reform entailed that fishing ministers were supposed to progressively phase out the unreasonably high quotas that had previously been the norm and contributed to declines in fish populations. By 2020, all quotas were supposed to be based on a maximum sustainable yield, the most fish that can be caught without causing damage to the species ability to recover, and an end was to be brought to the practice of discarding dead fish at sea.

EU’s CFP strategy effectiveness?

Despite the admirable and desperately needed reform to the CFP, there has been little departure from the pattern that has been set for decades. Short-term thinking is still affecting government decision-making in Europe. EU member states are permitting some sectors of the fishing industry to practice overfishing, allowing destructive fishing methods that maximise on short-term profits to the detriment of long-term sustainability.

Following this trend, Europe’s fish populations will continue to be overfished despite the 2020 deadline for setting fishing quotas at sustainable levels, as ministers across the EU instead set quotas at higher limits than scientists advised.

Fisheries ministers are continuing to ignore scientific advice, granting quotas to industrial fishing fleets that are far above the recommended levels. Despite the ban on discarding fish, vessels are still throwing fish back into the sea, which in turn increases the uncertainty over the number of fish actually being caught.

The European commission is struggling to insist on the discard ban, as it is against the motives of some member states. The commission has presented substantive solutions to advance sustainable fishing, but they cannot be carried out without the support of the Member States.

The UK’s opinion on the EU’s strategy leading up to Brexit

Since its establishment, the CFP has proven to be very controversial. The principle of equal access advocated by the CFP has been considered to disproportionately benefit other nations to the detriment of the UK.

There were many indications that the UK would face difficult negotiations after Brexit, as shared waters make up most of the productive seas fished by UK vessels. For the EU, an essential point of leverage against the UK is allowing access to EU markets in return for allowing EU fleets to continue to fish in UK waters. Without this access to EU markets, UK vessels will lose the export markets that sustain a large proportion of the fleet.

After Brexit, the commission promises, the UK will be consulted at various stages of the annual decision-making process in respect of its fishing opportunities. This means a return to the annual quota negotiations, but this time against likely to be hostile partners who want as much for their own fleets as possible, and who hold an advantage if access to their export markets is maintained.

What happens following Brexit?

Following Brexit, the UK will no longer be part of the EU CFP. It will become an independent state and be individually responsible for managing fishing in the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). However, the Government has expressed its intention to continue to cooperate closely with the EU and other coastal states on the sustainable management of fish stocks that cross borders.

The Government incorporated some EU regulations into UK legislation on fisheries under the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 aimed at ensuring a continuation of existing rules on Brexit day. The Government has stated that in the absence of a Fisheries Act it would be able to set fishing opportunities for the UK using prerogative powers.

The negotiated EU Withdrawal Agreement included the provision that the UK would be bound by the CFP until the end of any transition period.

The UK would in due course cease to be subject to the CFP and the EU quota system. Fish stocks within the UK’s territorial waters would be under UK control and the UK would determine conservation measures and catch limits. The UK would negotiate with the EU and third-party countries over mutual access to fisheries, against the backdrop of international treaties and conventions. It is hard to predict what the UK’s continuing relationship with the EU and third countries might look like.

Will this help solve overfishing?

Lobbying and negotiation to influence and shape policies affecting the fishing industry will continue to be vital regardless of the outcome following Brexit. Tensions between scientific advice, industry demands and competing national priorities will still remain.

It is likely that the future fishing negotiations between the EU and the UK will be a nightmare. That is because there are shared fish stocks between the UK and the EU, and negotiations will include access to UK waters and UK vessels in EU waters. Such agreements between multiple parties, with the UK as a third-party country, make it more complicated to guarantee the sustainable management of fish.

There are solutions such as more selective fishing gear and better technology, but the problem could more easily be solved by swapping quotas among member states or allowing the reallocation of a quotas among vessels within a Member State. This proves to be more problematic as ministers have been reluctant to explore these measures.

Ryan Lee

Feature Writer

Environmental Law


  • REPORT FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE COUNCIL AND THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT in respect of the delegation of powers referred to in Article 11(2), Article 15(2), (3), (6), (7) and Article 45(4) of Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2013 on the Common Fisheries Policy,

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