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A nice box of mackerel brought in from the seas off Newhaven, July 2012. Photo: Rachel Clarke via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
A nice box of mackerel brought in from the seas off Newhaven, July 2012. Photo: Rachel Clarke via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
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The EU is helping, not harming, UK fisheries

Griffin Carpenter

19th January 2016

With the EU referendum on the horizon, the Common Fisheries Policy is likely to figure in the debate as an exemplar of EU policy failure, writes Griffin Carpenter. But the much maligned and misunderstood CFP is doing a good job: stocks are recovering, bycatch-dumping is banned, and it may even force the UK to give more quota to small-scale fishers.

Without the CFP, the UK would be worse for stock recovery, worse for following scientific advice, worse for implementing UK initiatives, and worse for the many UK vessels that move anywhere near our neighbours.

The EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), more commonly referred to as the EU's "disastrous fishing policy", the EU's "most discredited and unpopular policy" or simply "the worst EU policy", is without a doubt one of most maligned pieces of EU legislation.

With a referendum on the UK's EU membership on the horizon, it is important to take a step back and consider whether the CFP has helped or hurt UK fisheries.

While ecosystems are certainly complex, the mechanics of sustainable fisheries are well understood.

As fish populations have been depleted and are producing fewer offspring, efforts to reduce fishing pressure would rebuild fish stocks and lead to larger harvests in the future.

It's a key tenet of fisheries economics but it still surprises many people that sustainable management would mean higher, not lower, catches than we are currently achieving. This higher volume of catches would bring both economic and social benefits.

Fishing quotas are leading to stock recovery

This key principle of reducing fishing pressure to achieve fish stock recovery is finally being implemented in EU waters. As in most fisheries in the developed world, one of the key mechanisms for preventing overfishing is the use of fishing quota - a limit on the amount of a particular fish stock that can be caught.

Quota management in the EU began for the majority of commercial fish stocks with the first CFP implemented in 1983, a time when fish stocks were at low levels and fishing pressure was still high.

Gradually fishing pressure has decreased for quota species and some fish stocks are now growing. In contrast, EU fish stocks that do not fall under quota management (e.g. fish stocks in Mediterranean waters or sea bass in the Northeast Atlantic) have not seen fishing pressure decline over this time.

If we had acted sooner to reduce fishing pressure, we could already be harvesting higher yields and supporting coastal communities. Unfortunately, quota proposals to rebuild fish stocks have been resisted by some sectors within the fishing industry as "absolutely diabolical" and "catastrophic for the industry".

Now that some stocks have been rebuilt and quotas are increasing, the same voices conclude that agreed fishing quotas "get the balance right".

It is also worth noting that even now, when stocks are being rebuilt, the UK industry's gross profit margin has increased from a healthy 15% in 2008 to 35% in 2014 and now stands at €367 million, the highest in the EU. For the UK fishing industry, EU management seems to be delivering benefits despite protests coming from the UK itself.

Flawed negotiations are still better than no negotiations

As this industry lobbying is taking place, the Council of Ministers (formed by the fisheries Ministers from EU member states) enters closed-door negotiations each year with scientific advice on recommended fishing limits in hand but leave the negotiations with quotas often set above advice - by an average of 20% over the last 15 years.

The UK is actually one on the parties walking away from negotiations with the most quota set above advice (ranking second out of fifteen member states).

On the face of it, negotiations which continuously exceed scientific advice seem to provide strong evidence for the failure of EU fisheries management. However, even these flawed negotiations are better than no negotiations, which is sometimes exactly what happens when negotiations breakdown with non-EU countries like Iceland, Norway, the Faroe Islands and Russia.

Under the threat of non-EU countries leaving the negotiation table, quotas set for fish stocks shared with non-EU countries are set higher than scientific advice by a greater amount than those stocks that only involve EU members (24% vs. 19%) from 2001 to 2015. Some of these negotiations have reached such levels of discord between the parties that they have been nicknamed the "mackerel war", the "herring war", and the "cod wars I and II".

It shouldn't be surprising that this form of loose arrangement would lead to a non-cooperative outcome when dealing with a shared resource, as economic theory predicts. The danger is that as a result of the proximity of the UK to EU members, leaving the EU would imply negotiating every single UK quota with the EU.

The UK citizen campaign to end discards has had an EU-wide impact

One of the more widely publicised criticisms of EU fisheries management is the practice of discarding fish that are undersized, unwanted or over quota. Now the EU is putting a discard ban - 'the landing obligation' - in place.

It is a complicated policy and is being phased in to ensure it is workable. Still, it is clear that the integrity of any quota system depends on measuring what is taken out of the water, as is the case in Norway, Iceland and elsewhere, rather than just what is landed.

The push to ban discarding came largely through a UK public campaign but having an EU-wide impact will ultimately benefit the UK, as EU countries discarding fewer fish will aid fish stock recovery.

There's a good reason for non-British boats in our waters

You may have read that foreign countries are in our waters and catching all the British fish. While the whole concept of 'British fish' is nonsensical to begin with, it's worth exploring how quota is allocated between countries in the EU.

The allocation of quota between EU member states is largely determined by historic catch shares - the 'relative stability' - of member states over a reference period (1973-78) just before the CFP was brought into force.

Under this method, countries fishing in each other's waters during the reference period continue to have the right to do so. Using a reference period is at least as reasonable as any alternative method of determining national shares and is also applied when setting quotas with countries outside of the EU.

In addition to this, the proposal to ban foreign vessels as some have advocated is likely to be incompatible with international law as many fishing rights stretch as far back as the Middle Ages. Calls for such a ban also don't acknowledge that British boats also operate in other nations' waters regularly to fish, sell at foreign ports and undergo vessel repairs. The UK fishing industry itself opposes such a ban.

Which fishing vessels receive quota is a national decision

Many ports around the UK only have a small fraction of the vessels they once had, but blaming the EU here doesn't make much sense.

  • First, technological changes have led to a reduction in the number of fishing vessels in developed countries both inside and outside the EU.
  • Second, vessel decommissioning schemes from the EU actually helped many fishers and coastal communities through a difficult transition as quotas lessened.
  • Third, one of the most significant issues for small ports is how quota is allocated between different fishing fleets and this is a national decision.

Consider the controversial Cornelis Vrolijk, a Dutch-owned 114-metre vessel that holds 23% of total English fishing quota. While the quota concentration is shocking, it is not a result of EU management; the vessel is deemed English under UK law and any quota assigned and requirement to land a certain share of fish in the UK is therefore set by the UK government itself.

As small ports disappear and profits for the small-scale fleet decline despite large increases for the rest of the industry, all major parties in the last UK election promised to ensure more quota for low-impact and small-scale fishing. Here, the CFP may help to ensure that this promise is implemented.

While not stipulating what specific criteria are used, Article 17 of the CFP stipulates that quota should be allocated according to "transparent and objective criteria". Greenpeace is currently taking the UK government to court for failing to implement this article which could bring tremendous economic and social benefits if implemented.

Avoiding the mistakes of individual actors exploiting common resources

Fisheries in the EU under the CFP are far from perfect and should continue to be critiqued and improved. With that said, the UK managing fisheries would likely be worse for stock recovery, worse for following scientific advice, worse for implementing UK initiatives, and worse for the many UK vessels that move anywhere near our neighbours.

Just as the history of fisheries around the world illustrates that what happens when each fisher is looking after their own interests is that a shared resource suffers, so too is the case with individual countries looking after their own interests while sharing fish stocks.

The evidence bears this out: EU cooperation through the Common Fisheries Policy is benefitting UK fisheries.



Griffin Carpenter is an economic modeller at the New Economics Foundation. His research focuses on the environmental, social and economic impacts of transitioning to sustainable management of natural resources. Griffin has contributed to projects on the bio-economic modeling of EU fisheries, climate change and energy policy, generating indicators to evaluate policy success, and true cost accounting using environmentally-extended input-output modelling. Griffin received a PPE degree from Wilfrid Laurier University and a Masters degree in Environmental Policy from the London School of Economics.

This article was originally published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

Creative Commons License


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