Hakai Magazine

On June 15, a flotilla of 30 ships sailed up the River Thames as part of a demonstration for the Brexit Leave campaign. Photo by Amer Ghazzal/Alamy Stock Photo

Brexit Vote Will Likely Cause Problems for UK Fishers

Fishers were part of the “Leave” push, but it may not work out as they’d hoped.

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by Brian Owens

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The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union in last week’s “Brexit” referendum will have profound effects on how fisheries are managed in both the UK and the EU. For now, it’s unclear exactly what those effects will be. But most experts agree that leaving the EU will be bad for both fishermen and fish stocks.

“It will be complicated and probably quite disastrous,” says Michel Kaiser, a marine conservation ecologist at Bangor University in Wales.

Since 1983, commercial fishing in the EU has been governed by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which sets quotas on how much fish the member states are allowed to catch. The UK’s fishermen have long complained that the CFP is a bureaucratic mess, and results in unfair quotas set by remote decision makers.

Fishermen overwhelmingly supported the leave side of the Brexit campaign, as did George Eustice, the UK’s fisheries minister, who promised the UK would have more control over its fish stocks and a greater say in setting quotas if it were outside the EU.

In reality, the EU’s CFP has actually been quite good for the UK’s fishing fleet, which is the most profitable in the EU, says Griffin Carpenter, an economic modeler at the New Economics Foundation. Around 20 percent of the UK fleet’s catch is pulled from the waters of other EU states. Those fish are often landed in foreign ports, and four of the top five buyers of UK seafood are EU countries. Leaving the EU could mean UK fishermen lose access to these waters and markets. “If we are not in the single market, we will lose lots of business,” says Peter Jones, who studies environmental governance at University College London.

Fish stocks have also benefited from the centralized management of the EU. As the CFP has undergone repeated incremental reforms, fish stocks have slowly recovered: North Sea cod, once the poster child for fisheries collapse, could be certified as sustainable as soon as next year.

It will be much harder for the UK to push for reforms to EU fishing policy from the outside, says Kaiser. And this matters, he says, because “what the French fleet does affects the UK, whether we’re in the EU or not.”

“Once we’re out, our ability to affect other countries is very limited,” says Kaiser.

Since fish don’t care about the imaginary lines between countries, the UK will still have to cooperate on setting quotas with its neighbors, which will involve agreeing on separate deals for each species. Non-EU countries such as Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands do this, but these negotiations often lead to higher fishing quotas than scientists recommend. That exact scenario is currently playing out with mackerel, with Iceland setting its own quota five times higher than what the EU suggested, says Jones. “They can just say ’Sod it, we’ll take what we want,’” he says. “And we know what happens then.”

The UK’s fishermen may think they have voted to gain more control over their industry, but “a great many of the expectations of fishers will not happen,” says Carpenter. The UK may be able to renegotiate higher quotas for some species, but the EU will likely demand concessions in others.

Jones is even more blunt: “People have been duped by cynical lies that have led to this disastrous result.”