Is the EU ‘pinching our fish’?

Published: 21st Jun 2016

"[The EU is] Pinching our fish"

Boris Johnson quoted in The Telegraph, 16 June 2016

The UK does have fishing quotas, as does every country within the EU with a fishing industry. For stocks shared with non-EU countries, the quotas are agreed with those countries.

The European Union’s Council of Ministers sets the tonnage of specific fish, or ‘Total Allowable Catch’ (TAC), which can be caught within EU waters and then divides this between each member state.

The quota each member state receives is based largely on how much they fished in those areas in the 1970s, before the Common Fisheries Policy came into effect.

This method of splitting up the stocks is designed to keep the levels of fishing in these areas relatively stable. However, it has been criticised in the UK, particularly as for much of the 1970s the UK fishing fleet spent much of its time in the waters around Iceland, which is not a member of the EU.

In 1976 the UK fleet was expelled from this area when fishing limits around Iceland were extended to 200 miles.

Other methods of dividing fish stocks have been proposed, but the House of Commons Library has said the system is unlikely to change.

It’s also impossible to determine what the policy on fishing would be if we left the EU and things wouldn’t necessarily be any better.

Currently EU member states are allowed to place limits on who can fish in their territorial waters, and up to 100 nautical miles fishing is restricted to those who traditionally fished there, but the legislation covering this expires in 2022. Whether or not this will be replaced by that date will be a matter for the politicians to determine.

The UK’s fishing haul has increased in recent years

The UK’s share of the overall EU fishing catch grew between 2004 and 2014. In 2004 the UK had the fourth largest catch of any EU country at 652,000 tonnes, by 2014 this had grown to 752,000 tonnes and the second largest catch of any country in the EU.

The UK has recently promoted its work to help secure an increase in the Total Allowable Catches of some key fish stocks.

This would suggest that within the EU the UK is improving its position.

Some academic research has suggested that the UK’s fishing quotas allow fishermen based here to catch around 30% of fish in UK waters. But, the quotas for individual species also vary widely.

The research also points out the fact that many species of fish migrate widely and so it is very difficult to determine exactly fish would be British fish in the first place.

The share of fish which goes to other EU countries also varies widely depending on species and area. For example, France received roughly 84% of the overall Total Allowable Catch on cod in the Eastern Channel whilst in the North Sea it received only 4%.

Elizabeth Truss, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has said the waters around the UK make up 13% of the total waters of the EU. We asked Defra for the source for this figure and they told us that it was a widely accepted fact.

Quotas aren’t necessarily working, but things are unlikely to improve outside of the EU

Total Allowable Catches are intended to ensure that fishing is sustainable within each fishing zone and that the areas are not overfished. There are doubts within the industry as to whether or not the EU’s fishing policy has actually achieved this. But, some species, such as North Sea cod, seem to be recovering and an assessment is underway to determine whether or not it is now sustainable.

If we left the EU it wouldn’t necessarily mean that the situation would improve. The House of Commons Library has said that “many of the underlying issues that affect fisheries management would remain unchanged.”

The UK is signed up to the UN Law of the Sea Convention which allows countries to establish an Exclusive Economic Zone of up to 200 nautical miles from their coast. If the UK were to leave the EU we could have control of all fish which were within this zone. But, the same laws also require countries to ensure that fish stocks are conserved and that the allowable catch is specified and where necessary shared with other countries.

Countries such as Norway have this 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone in place, they also have agreements with a number of countries, and with the EU to allow fishing in those waters.

Update 21 June 2016

We updated this piece to include Defra's response on the UK's proportion of EU waters.


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