Brexit and Fisheries

If the UK left the EU, it would take its sea fisheries with it.

It’s outside the scope of this blog to give a view on whether the UK should remain within or leave the European Union; most of the issues have little to do with the environment or natural resources.  However, one consequence of leaving would be that the sea within the UK’s  Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending up to 200 miles from its coast would no longer be subject to the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.  That has implications for the UK fishing industry, for management of fish stocks within the UK’s EEZ, and for the UK’s enforcement of its EEZ rights.

Many aspects of the EU are about removing barriers: the Common Fisheries Policy is different in that it is about sharing a resource.  A Spanish farmer, for example, can sell his produce in the UK without any import duty being levied on it.  He can also move to the UK.  What he can’t do, unless he is prepared to pay the market rate for land, is to start farming on UK land.  A Spanish fisherman, by contrast, has the same freedoms as the farmer, but in addition, without any payment, can sail his boat into UK waters and catch fish; a UK fisherman can do the same in Spanish waters.  Fish within the EEZ’s around the coast of Europe of EU members are managed as a common resource.

The main instrument of management is a Total Allowable Catch for each species and area, determined annually by the EU Council of Ministers with advice from the EU Commission. Member states are then allocated shares (quotas) of the Total Allowable Catch, which they in turn allocate among fishermen.  Enforcement of quotas is the responsibility of member states and, although some inspections take place at sea, for reasons of practicality is mainly exercised where fish are landed.

It is widely accepted that the record of the Common Fisheries Policy in conserving fish stocks is poor.  If the UK were no longer subject to the Policy, is it likely that it would do better in conserving fish stocks within its EEZ for the long-term benefit of its fishing industry?  Here are some reasons why it might:

  1. The UK government would be able to determine its own annual catch limits. With no need to bargain with other countries over quotas, it is more likely that science-based advice on maximum sustainable yields would be respected.
  2. The UK would be free to consider following Iceland and New Zealand in adopting individual transferable fishing quotas, an approach that may help encourage conservation (1) but has not found favour with the EU.
  3. UK fishermen may be more inclined to full compliance with a fishery policy determined by the UK and which they can see is for their industry’s long-term benefit.

And here are some reasons why it might not:

  1. Some fish species such as mackerel migrate in and out of the UK’s EEZ, which may therefore be too small an area of sea for effective management of conservation.
  2. UK politicians, and those who lobby them, may be no less likely to take a short-term view than those in other countries.
  3. Effective enforcement to prevent foreign boats coming to fish within the UK’s EEZ might not be a priority for government expenditure, and might also be constrained by a reluctance to create diplomatic incidents.

The balance of advantage for the UK seems unclear.

Notes and References

  1. Arnason R (2012) Property Rights in Fisheries: How Much Can Individual Transferable Quotas Accomplish?  Review of Environmental Economics and Policy  6(2) pp 217-236
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