From Trade Deals to Trawlers: How Brexit rocked the CFP boat

14 Jan 2021 – Written by Ed Biggins

Just seven days before the end of the transition period, the UK and EU’s negotiating teams agreed on a deal for the post-Brexit transition. The deal covers an eclectic range of terms moving forward, including regulation on work, movement, travel, trade, and fisheries. The latter had been described by UK officials as “one of the most important benefits of Brexit”, although in reality had become something of a “totemic issue”, a symbol of the reclamation of sovereign rights and the strengthening of the idea of UK waters, despite accounting for less than 0.1% of the UK’s GDP. Nevertheless, the prominent position of fishing rights throughout the Brexit negotiations opened the current EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) up for scrutiny, and the policy was found to be outdated and lacking. 

The CFP assigns each EU country a fishing quota as part of the EU’s Total Allowable Catch. This is designed to use sustainability on a species-by-species basis as a guide to ensure sustainable fishing practices, although much of the data that the policy is built upon is outdated. For example, since much of the CFP was drawn up in the 1970s, at a time when the UK’s fishing fleet was largely based in Icelandic waters, the UK was accordingly assigned just 10% of the quota for cod caught in the English Channel. Since then, Iceland has reduced access to its waters and yet, heading into the Brexit negotiations, the UK still saw the same quota, perhaps explaining why this perceived ‘unfairness’ fuelled the Brexit debate so fiercely.

Evidently, in response to Brexit or not, the CFP needs updating and refreshing. The current outdated nature of the policy is disastrous for local wildlife as 1970s estimates continue to be used to guide quotas against scientific advice and despite serious marine population change. It is estimated that nearly 38% of fish in the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea, and 87% of those in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea are overfished, meaning that the fish populations are being caught at a faster rate than they are able to reproduce. This is incredibly damaging for these species in EU waters. This along with the added negative effects of climate change, such as rising ocean temperatures and increasing acidification of the oceans, only diminishes these populations further. This overfishing could have far-reaching consequences and impact national and local economies and food chains, as well as devastating ecological effects. 

Initially, Brexit presented an opportunity for the UK to leave the “failed” CFP and create new legislation which more closely followed scientific advice. However, uncertainty and concern quickly arose as proposed sustainable amendments, such as banning supertrawlers (boats capable of catching 250 tonnes of fish per day) were rejected by the UK Parliament. As of September 2020, the UK Fisheries Bill still did not contain sustainability commitments, and this uncertainty was cited by EU officials as the reason why a third of this year’s fishing quotas continue to exceed scientific advice. However, this pretext is not wholly convincing as officials also agreed to higher than sustainable quotas for some EU-only fisheries, such as in the Bay of Biscay, which remain unaffected by Brexit negotiations. 

Thankfully uncertainty has been reduced as, after almost four years of negotiations, very little changed regarding the UK and EU’s fishing relationship. The UK will continue to have exclusive rights over the 6 miles of ocean from its coast and 10% of the cod from the Channel, and EU fishing boats will also give up 25% of their quota rights in British waters. Nevertheless, despite little changing, this could be the best outcome from a sustainability perspective. Whilst the opportunity for a nation to set their quotas in line with scientific guidance sounds beneficial in theory, this rarely occurs in practice. As in the cases of Iceland, Norway, and the Faroe Islands, sovereign states must still come to an agreement with the EU on quotas. When these cannot be agreed upon, each party sets their quotas and these can combine to far-exceed scientific advice. By removing the aspect of competition, the CFP is more likely to fall to – and remain within – sustainable levels. 

With a deal agreed, it now remains to be seen whether the EU can effectively monitor and enforce sustainable practices and goals. The new EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 claims that “€10 billion under Horizon Europe will be invested in R&I related to food, bio-economy, natural resources, agriculture, fisheries, aquaculture and environment”, and that the EU plans to establish protected areas for at least 30% of European seas. However, the EU previously set a target in 2013 to end overfishing by 2020, and officials have wilfully ensured that that has not occurred, so greater accountability will be required if the EU is to follow through on their new biodiversity strategy. As both a programme director at Our Fish and the EU Commissioner for Oceans and Fisheries have argued, continued unsustainable action in the face of contrary advice “helps nobody, not the fish, the ocean, the climate or the fishers”, and will inevitably require drastic action to be taken in the future.

Ultimately, Brexit has been a blessing and a curse for the CFP. On the one hand, the uncertainty that surrounded the UK Fisheries Bill provided an excuse for EU policymakers to delay reaching sustainability targets that they set themselves in 2013. As a result of this, we will continue to see already-dramatically overfished stocks continue to be exploited throughout this year. On the other hand, the discussion around the hard-fought negotiations has shone a light on the outdated inadequacies of the current policy, highlighting areas that are in dire need of updating. EU policymakers must not miss the next opportunity to bring the CFP in line with scientific advice, and we would hope to see the quotas for all EU fish stocks reach sustainable levels by 2022. This will not only secure the ecological health of the marine stock, but also put the EU in an excellent position to advocate for sustainable fishing worldwide to preserve this ancient and vital industry.

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Recommended citation:

Biggins, E. (2021) From Trade Deals to Trawlers: How Brexit rocked the CFP boat, IDRN, 14 January. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].