Why The UK's Brexit Stance On Fishing Rights Makes Very Little Sense

We could end up with tonnes of fish that Brits don't even like and no way of selling them to the EU before they rot.

As things stand, the UK is set to crash out of the EU next month with no deal, a scenario that could cost the British economy £160bn.

To put this into perspective, that’s two to three times as bad as the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic which has led to massive unemployment, bankrupted councils and, most recently, caused the demise of Debenhams.

So why can’t we negotiate a deal with the EU? Mostly because of a stand-off over fishing rights.

From a purely economic standpoint, the intense haggling over fishing rights seems a bit odd – even when combined with fish and shellfish processing, the sector makes up 0.1% of Britain’s GDP.

Yet many Brexit supporters see it as a symbol of the regained sovereignty that Brexit will supposedly bring and it has been heavily promoted by the likes of Nigel Farage, who even went so far as convening his own fishing armada during the run up to the EU referendum.

So what is the UK actually negotiating for?

A “point of principle”.

Not our words, those of foreign secretary Dominic Raab, who this week said: “On fishing there’s a point of principle: as we leave the EU we’re going to be an independent… coastal state and we’ve got to be able to control our waters.”

Currently, fish quota allocations for each country are defined under the Common Fisheries Policy. These are based on historic catch allocations and under a principle of “relative stability”, are fixed.

The UK wants to allocate quotas on new zonal approach which would drastically limit how much fish EU boats could catch in UK waters.

What happens when we ‘control our waters’?

According to a consultation paper published by the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2018, the UK would gain far higher shares of the overall quota for many types of fish in its waters.

What types of fish would we get more of?

This is where things get... interesting – British people don’t really like the fish caught in British waters.

The most popular catches in the UK are traditional stalwarts like cod and haddock but the most fished species in British waters are mackerel and herring – most of our cod and haddock is caught in EU waters and imported.

So what do we do with all the mackerel and herring? We sell it to the EU where it’s far more popular.

Dmitry Grozoubinski, founder of ExplainTrade, told HuffPost UK: “The way it’s worked out is that UK fishers primarily catch fish to sell to Europe and a lot of the fish British people like such as haddock that goes into fish and chips for example, gets caught mostly by EU fleets and then it’s sold to the UK.”


What happens after Brexit?

This is where the “point of principle” begins to fall apart. In January when all things Brexity kick in proper, the UK is going to really struggle to sell a lot of the catch it’s fought so hard over.

“The UK is facing a situation where you retain the right to fish in British waters but face your fish being non-competitive abroad so businesses are not viable,” says Grozoubinski.

This is due to two factors – borders and tariffs.


When the UK leaves the single market and customs union on January 1, the entire country will instantly be surrounded by bureaucratic red tape and anyone trying to sell anything in the EU will face major delays transporting their goods.

“Even with the fish you’re currently catching and selling to the EU, a lot of that trade is with fresh seafood,” says Grozoubinski.

“And it works because you can take that shipment can either dock in an EU port or be loaded onto a refrigerated truck and driven straight across and in a restaurant in Lyon later that day.

″[After Brexit] none of that is going to work anymore because the borders are going to take much longer to cross.”

The second issue is possible tariffs.


In the event of a no-deal Brexit which is becoming ever more likely by the hour, in large part because of the stand-off over fishing rights, the UK would regain control over its waters and would catch lots and lots of fish.

The problem arises when the UK tries to sell that fish. As shown above, British people simply don’t eat much mackerel, for instance, and exports the huge majority of it to countries in the EU.

A no deal Brexit would mean it is now subject to tariffs which EU countries are unlikely to pay if here are alternatives. Some catches such as scallops will face up to 20% tariffs.

“It’s not that the seafood would cost you more because it’s the Europeans that pay the EU tax, it’s that British seafood would become less competitive than seafood from Europe because they wouldn’t need to pay those tariffs,” says Grozoubinski.

“What it looks like the UK is trying to do is take back control of the supply side and catch more fish, but if the deal falls over you’ll be seriously hurt on the demand side because the UK will be blocked out of its biggest market.”

So what do we gain from taking a stand for fishing rights?

Bragging rights and a fishing industry swamped with tonnes of fish it can’t sell.


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