Fish Pie in the Sky: Brexit hopes of UK fishing likely to be dashed

The 12,000 people who crew the UK’s fishing fleet have been encouraged to believe that Brexit and Britain’s departure from the Common Fisheries Policy will transform their fortunes. They have been promised that an entirely national policy will give them exclusive rights to fish in the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone and that they will still be able to export duty-free to the rest of Europe.

Not only are those promises likely to be shown to be pie in the sky, there’s every chance that the British fleet will be worse off outside the European Union.

Fish don’t respect national boundaries. Their spawning grounds are often in a different area from where they are caught when mature. Joint management is the only way to safeguard stocks from overfishing. This is a matter of international law. Britain, the EU and its members are all parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

This applies to more than 100 of the stocks present in UK waters. Such stocks have to be managed at levels which do not exceed Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) – the same commitment the UK has under EU law as specified in the (recently reformed) Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

Even the avowedly Eurosceptic fisheries minister George Eustice rapidly backpedalled on claims made by Brexit supporters, admitting that “taking back control’…it sounds perhaps more dramatic than it might be.” Britain will still engage in international negotiations around mutual access rights, mutual shares and total allowable catches.

Reserving UK waters to British fishers is not a simple matter. The rights of fishers from several other European countries to access and fish in UK waters pre-date entry to the EEC. There were some 32 areas of the British coast where vessels from other states could fish based on the 1964 London Fisheries Convention.

A complete closure of the UK waters to foreign vessels would only be possible if the UK chose to terminate all such agreements – resulting in retaliation. British fishers could expect the EU–our biggest market for fish exports– slapping a tariff or quota on British fish exports.

Post Brexit Britain will also have to negotiate its own deals with other fishing nations not covered by the CFP, without the collective clout of the EU behind it.


Britain exports nearly 80% of its catch to other (mostly EU) countries, and imports the vast majority of the fish that are processed or consumed in Britain, which either come from the EU or countries with whom the EU has agreed preferential trade relations. It is vital for our industry (nor least the processing sector in Grimsby) and for our consumers that this can continue without impediment.

However, if we leave the EU without a preferential trade agreement, WTO rules would apply, and we would face tariffs on fish products from 2% on Atlantic Salmon to 20% on frozen mackerel, and up to 25% on highly processed products. Equally, the EU would, under WTO rules, face tariffs on exporting to the UK.

If our aim is to secure a free trade agreement, it is important to remember that trade in fish and seafood products is not normally part of a standard free trade deal. Indeed, Norway and Iceland, despite being members of the European Economic Area (EEA), and thus for most purposes the single market too, are nevertheless subject to tariffs and quotas on many fisheries products.

Of course, even if we do agree a trade deal with zero tariffs, if we leave the Customs Union, there will be rules of origin customs checks at borders, which triggers a lot of paper work and can cause holdups that are particularly damaging for products where freshness is essential.

A practical example is the effect of leaving the ‘customs union’. If the UK pulls out, every shipment of fish/shellfish would require a health certificate from DEFRA (Carlisle) issued in advance (5-14 days) with exact weights per box (no use for shellfish), a certificate of origin (normally Chamber of Commerce, a bit of a problem in the Highlands and Islands), as well as having a Veterinary Officer on site for every dispatch to sign certificates (whether that be 1kg or a 26 ton container) to seal the shipment with ‘secure tags’.

This is an impossible expense for lobster/langoustine fishermen with a 20kg catch going to Madrid, as well as a 20% tariff and £350 – £600 bill for a vet waiting for a lorry to turn up. It’s a price sensitive market – adding in effect 30%, plus paperwork for buyers at customs points, in Spain/France will decimate the rural Highland and Island economy, where currently 85% of shellfish goes to EU markets.

Nor are trade deals just about tariffs and quotas; they are also about standards and quality. The EU regulates marketing standards for fish products to give consumers assurances about the quality and integrity of fish. As a non-member, we will no longer have a say on those standards, but will still have to meet them in order to sell into the EU market. Compliance with import standards is also essential for UK vessels that land their catches directly into EU ports, though the continuation of this practice will anyway be subject to negotiation with the EU.

Last, but not least, is the issue of staffing the industry.  Large numbers– as high as 50% in some places – of people working in the fish processing sector have come from other EU member states. Scrapping free movement would cause similar difficulties to those now bedevilling the farming industry.

By Richard Corbett - Last leader of the UK Labour Party in EU parliament and MEP for Yorkshire & the Humber

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