This briefing is largely based on the briefing by the House of Commons Library ‘EU referendum: impact of an EU exit in key UK policy areas’. The opinions and judgements it contains are theirs. We expect to review and add to these articles periodically as events develop.
Since the late 1970s, individual countries have been entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) within 200 nautical miles of their coast, but EU countries don’t enforce this against other members. In 1983 it was agreed that fisheries in the EEZs of EU countries would be shared out based on “relative stability”. This formula keeps the quotas member countries are entitled to at a similar level from year to year and is based on how they fished historically.
Relative stability also gave certain fishing communities in the UK and Ireland special protection by taking quotas from other member countries if quotas fell below certain levels.
It could be argued that this situation disadvantaged the UK. The House of Commons Library points out that we might have been able to control a significant proportion of the EU’s catch by enforcing a 200-mile EEZ. However, the Library also suggests that the UK government may have accepted the terms as a requirement of EU membership and as the UK was given special protections.
The government’s review of our EU membership in 2013 concluded that the Common Fisheries Policy had failed in the past to ensure sustainable fishing across the EU. But it also reported that recent changes have taken major steps to address the policy’s fundamental problems.
It’s impossible to say exactly what would happen to UK fisheries once we leave the EU without knowing what sort of deal will be negotiated. But the House of Commons Library does say 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 requires countries to cooperate to conserve and manage marine resources, including fisheries.
Once we leave the EU the main question for fisheries will be whether the UK allows access by foreign vessels to the UK EEZ. If the UK decided to do so, it would need to maintain a close working relationship with the EU to coordinate on regulations and to monitor fish stocks and quotas.
If the UK decided to exclude foreign vessels it would need to manage fish stocks that spill across boundaries with another country’s EEZ and address the potential loss of existing fishing rights for UK vessels outside the EEZ.
Whichever approach was decided on, the House of Commons Library says that the UK would still in all likelihood have to comply with any EU import requirements when selling fish to EU countries. The UK would have limited influence over what those requirements would be.