Fish Are Chips in Post-Brexit Trade Bargaining

The U.K.’s exit from the European Union has sparked a battle over fishing in waters British and EU trawlers have shared for four decades. British fleets are keen to reclaim their seas, and EU counterparts risk losing prime fishing grounds. Complicating matters, much of the fish and shellfish caught by British boats is sold on the European mainland. The issue has emerged as a major stumbling block to a trade accord between Britain and the EU.

1. Why fight over fish?

The U.K. has some of Europe’s most fertile fishing zones, and its fleet hauls the EU’s second-largest catch annually. Fisheries were a sticking point in the U.K.’s initiative to join the bloc in the 1970s, and British fishermen have lamented that their sector was sacrificed during negotiations to meet other trade goals. In recent years, more than half of fish and shellfish caught within 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) of the U.K. coast was landed by other EU countries. France, the EU nation that typically catches the most fish by value in British waters, has been seeking to ensure it maintains the same access.

Fish Are Chips in Post-Brexit Trade Bargaining

2. What’s been happening?

In advance of Brexit coming into force at the end of 2020, the U.K. has been preparing for its departure from the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, which means foreign boats will need to obtain fishing licenses and abide by British rules. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged that Britain will maintain control of its waters and the European Commission cautioned that a post-Brexit U.K.-EU trade agreement must include a fisheries accord. As the end-of-year deadline for a trade deal approached, talks hinged on how much of the current 650 million euros ($795 million) of fish caught annually in British waters the EU was prepared to give up, as well as when exactly the new rules would kick in.

3. How closely tied are the U.K. and EU fishing industries?

Upwards of $1.5 billion is sold each way annually, according to Rabobank. U.K. waters supply the fish for the Netherlands’ herring habit and consumers on the European mainland have an affinity for the salmon farmed off the shores of Scotland. If Europe curbs buying, the U.K. could also see a shellfish surplus. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic, which have British overseas territory status, are a major supplier of squid to southern Europe and it’s unclear how Brexit talks may affect those shipments.

Fish Are Chips in Post-Brexit Trade Bargaining

4. What’s at stake?

Though the fishing industry isn’t vital to the U.K. -- representing just 0.1% of the British economy -- its long-term decline has contributed to the challenges facing coastal communities. The EU has accounted for at least 64% of the U.K.’s exports since 2010, according to Rabobank. Though both sides have diversified trade with other countries, they’ll want to keep fish flowing across borders and avoid clashes between ships at sea, as occurred in the so-called cod wars waged by Britain and Iceland between the 1950s and 1970s.

5. How far has the U.K. industry declined?

The U.K. home fleet landed 948,000 tons of fish in 1970, shortly before the country joined the EU. By 2015, the year before the Brexit referendum, that had more than halved to 415,000 tons. Over the same period the number of British fishermen dropped to 12,000 from 21,400. Indications are that fishing communities voted strongly for Brexit, expecting restrictions on boats from Europe to reinvigorate their business. British fishing associations say the government should emulate Norway, which annually negotiates access to its waters and bars boats from countries with which it has no accord. The U.K. in September struck a fisheries deal with the Nordic nation -- its first since leaving the EU -- under which the two countries will annually set quotas and negotiate access to each others’ waters. The NFFO was calling for the U.K. to strike similar terms with the EU.

6. Which EU countries are most affected?

Countries most closely involved are Ireland, Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. While EU rules have permitted all member nations to fish in each other’s waters, those are the states whose waters are closest to those of the U.K. or whose fishermen are most extensively around the U.K. coast. They have been pressing for the issue to form part of wider talks over trade between the U.K. and EU, rather than being dealt with in isolation.

Fish Are Chips in Post-Brexit Trade Bargaining

7. What’s the U.K. political backdrop?

Johnson’s Conservative Party received strong support in the December 2019 election from fishing communities who signed up to his “Get Brexit Done” message. For instance, a Tory candidate won the North Sea port of Grimsby for the first time since World War II. Johnson pledged after the election to “work flat-out” to keep their backing. He repeatedly told Scottish voters he would protect their fishing industry, taking back control of its waters and contrasting that stance with the pro-EU policies of Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party.

8. What about Ireland?

Ireland’s fishing fleets make about 34% of their catch in British waters. Not only does Ireland risk losing some of its access to such important fishing grounds, it also faces greater competition in its own waters from EU vessels. Former Irish Agriculture, Food and Marine Minister Michael Creed was on record saying its fishing industry “would be decimated if we don’t get the proper outcome from Brexit; it would be calamitous.”

Fish Are Chips in Post-Brexit Trade Bargaining

9. How could this affect other businesses?

Fisheries are not being negotiated as a standalone industry: the EU has been using the issue as a bargaining tool in the context of wider trade talks. Irish Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who led the government until a grand coalition was formed in June, warns that without an accord on this issue, U.K. firms may not win the deals they want in other sectors. Speaking to the BBC in January, Varadkar said: “You may have to make concessions in areas like fishing in order to get concessions from us in areas like financial services.”

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