Brexit: A game changing vote for fishing

Adjustment will be necessary across almost all industries, especially in commercial fishing and related sectors Adjustment will be necessary across almost all industries, especially in commercial fishing and related sectors

With the UK electorate voting to exit the European Union, Jason Holland asks where that leaves the country’s fishing industry and the broader seafood supply chain.

23 June 2016 was a landmark day for so many people both inside and outside the United Kingdom, after a majority 52% of voters, or 17.4 million people, voted in favour of ‘Leave’ in the EU referendum, thus making it the first country to quit the bloc since its formation. Much has happened politically and economically in the short space of time since the referendum result was announced and it’s likely to be several more months before the dense dust settles and we can all take true stock of the situation. It should also be taken into account that the process of leaving the EU – through Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – can take up to two years, which will inevitably prolong the transitional uncertainty and speculation.

What’s assured, however, is that considerable adjustment will be necessary across almost all industries, with commercial fishing and related sectors perhaps among those most affected.

Summing up the current mood in the camp, the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) stated, “From any perspective, it is clear that the outcome of the EU referendum marks a seismic change for the fishing industry. What that change actually will mean in practice is less easy to predict. On all fronts, including fishing politics, we are entering uncharted territory and turbulent waters, with challenges and perhaps also opportunities.”

Political support
Though scores of questions need answers, there is some optimism about Britain’s exit or ‘Brexit’ vote. Not least from UK Fisheries Minister George Eustice, who despite the now outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron and his government officially wanting the UK to ‘Remain’ part of the EU, made no secret of his desire to see the opposite outcome, saying it would ensure greater long-term security for the fishing industry and allow it to flourish – predominantly by giving it a significantly fairer say in quota and fisheries access deals.

Speaking less than a month before the referendum, at the Shellfish Association of Great Britain (SAGB) 47th Annual Conference in London, the minister confirmed his stance that the UK should leave the EU and his belief that there was an overwhelming case from the fishing industry perspective to do so as it would rid the sector of “many ineffective constraints” handed down by the European Commission and also bring improved catch packages in many important fisheries.

He cited the North Sea – the UK’s most economically important fishery – where despite the country being Europe's largest producer of cod, haddock and mackerel, it’s entirely reliant upon an EU negotiator at the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) annual coastal states meetings to deliver a good deal with regards to the future fishing opportunities for these stocks.

It is bizarre that while Norway, Iceland and the Faroes have seats at the negotiation table, the UK, which has the greatest interest in the North Sea, doesn’t because it’s a member of the EU, said Mr Eustice.

“Leaving the EU would give us a seat at the table and allow us to negotiate our own deals.”

Quota allocations
Another reason the minister wanted Brexit was to re-establish national control for 200 nautical miles or the median line as provided for in international law, which he said would put the country in a strong position to address the unfair issue of relative stability, and to argue for a better share of quota allocations in many fish stocks.  

He pointed to the Celtic Sea cod fishery where the UK allocation was just 800 tonnes compared to 5,500 tonnes for France. He also questioned the sense in France being allowed to catch three times as much sole as UK fishermen in the Eastern Channel.

“If we were to leave the European Union, what would happen? The basic [conservation and management] principle is set down in the UN Law of the Sea Convention. We would have national control between 12 and 200 nautical miles, and after that all of the current TAC (total allowable catch) allocations would be put on the table, and we could also put access rights back on table too.”

There would be some issues relating to historic access fishing rights, but the crucial thing would be the control out to 200 nautical miles, said Mr Eustice.

Following the announcement of the referendum result, the minister stated that there was so much the nation could now achieve and that it finally had “a decision to face the future with confidence”. However, there will now be intense pressure on him to demonstrate that leaving was indeed in the fishing industry’s best interests.

One thing Brexit won’t bring is an end to the introduction of the Landing Obligation policy. Though he acknowledged there were concerns relating to whether the discard ban could be properly implemented in certain complex fisheries, particularly in the North Sea, he told SAGB conference delegates that he believed there were sufficient flexibility and tools within the policy to make it work.

“The Landing Obligation is one thing that we would keep, because in principle it is the right thing to do,” he said. “The UK was behind the discard ban and we will keep trying to deliver on that.”

Trade uncertainty
Another major area of uncertainty post-Brexit will be the country’s seafood exports and imports. Currently, a large proportion of the domestic catch is exported because it achieves a higher value in foreign markets. Annually, these exports equate to around 500,000 tonnes, worth around £1.5 billion and a lot of these products end up in EU markets. Europe also accounts for 40% of Scotland’s farmed salmon exports.

Similarly, around 70% of the seafood value that enters the UK supply chain is imported from abroad or landed by foreign ships.

Because all EU member states have access to the single market, there are no tariffs, quotas or taxes on trade and the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. Therefore as it progresses its departure from the bloc, the UK will need to negotiate several new trade deals with these European trade partners and with those other countries where it previously benefitted from EU trade agreements. This is again largely unchartered territory.


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