The UK and EU have just concluded their first annual bilateral fisheries agreement made under the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
The negotiations and annual agreement have been heavily shaped and constrained by the limitations imposed by the TCA. The outcomes also reflect the UK’s new legal status as an independent coastal state. The tensions created by these two divergent trajectories go a long way to explaining the shape and content of the deal for 2021.
Total Allowable Catches and Regulatory Autonomy
Total Allowable catches for jointly managed stocks have now been agreed as part of the deal but these only reflect the provisional determinations already set unilaterally by the UK in May. A formula within the TCA linked to the most recent ICES advice constrains the range within which autonomous quotas can be set.
It is in details like the conditions attached to particular TACs that the political trial of strength is visible. The UK’s determination to go its own way on fisheries (within the confines of the TCA) and the EU’s efforts to constrain divergence as much as possible, are apparent in the compromises made. The TCA requires the parties to work together on the management of shared stocks but also enshrines recognition that in the final analysis each party has the right to regulatory autonomy to manage the fisheries within its own respective zone.
The issues which have delayed reaching a deal until almost 6 months into the year to which it applies all relate to this fundamental tension.
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The issue which reflects the terms of the TCA, but also throws up the most difficult management issues for the future, are the tonnage limits which will apply to catches of non-quota species like scallop, crab, red mullet, sardine, whelk, lemon sole and many others. The parties have fought themselves to a standstill and have now agreed that it is too late in the year to apply the tonnage limits. Designed as a cap to prevent the displacement onto stocks that are economically valuable but for which data is limited, the implementation of the tonnage limits will now be referred to the Specialised Committee on Fisheries (SCF). Get used to those initials because they will be where most bilateral fisheries management issues will now be addressed.
The influence of regulatory autonomy is evident not only where the UK overtly adopts its own management measures (which will apply to all vessels operating within the UK EEZ), but also where the negotiation outcomes have been shaped by the new balance of power.
An example is in the agreed negotiation outcome on bass. Although this was an agreed common approach, it is one which shifts the conservation measures more towards the UK’s preference to allow more scope to land a higher proportion of unavoidable bycatch rather than discard them dead. This will not go far enough for those who are seeing an abundance of seabass in their local waters but does point to the fact that the UK is no longer a supplicant member state, easily corralled, by the Commission.
Celtic Sea Technical Measures
The agreement for 2021 acknowledges that the UK will unilaterally apply strengthened selectivity measures in the Celtic Sea. There is a suspicion that the Commission is not unhappy with this development, as its own plans faced opposition from member states. The views of some member states may differ.
Mixed Fisheries Management
The annual agreement contains language on the future management of mixed fisheries which also points to UK influence and movement towards a more reality-based approach which recognizes the need for carefully balanced trade-offs, rather than one-size-fits-all CFP rigidity. This could represent a breakthrough after years of trying to fit zero-TAC advice to complex mixed fisheries situations. In truth, the EU routinely departed from zero TAC advice based on single stock assessments. We can see in the agreed record, though, the beginnings of a refreshing reality-based approach which can balance rebuilding weak stocks in a mixed fishery configuration, whilst maintaining the socio-economic fabric of the fishing communities dependent on those stocks. Looking back, we may see this as an important, even historic, breakthrough.
Another area in which the fresh shoots of divergence can be seen is in the treatment of discard policy. The EU landing obligation has proved (as anticipated by many) to be a crude, ineffectual, approach to minimising unwanted catch. Whilst the EU is tied into maintaining its landing obligation for the immediate future, the UK is now in a position to develop more agile alternatives which reduce the threat of chokes in mixed fisheries. An initial departure can be seen in relation to the treatment of exemptions and TAC reductions in the annual agreement. Developing a tailored discard policy, most likely as part of individual fisheries management plans, as envisaged by the Fisheries Act will be a UK priority.
Specialised Committee for Fisheries
An idea of the range and significance of the new Specialised Committee for Fisheries is seen in the Committee’s first work programme
The Delegations identified the following issues to be discussed in the SCF:
Skates and rays, paragraph 5(e)
- Terms of reference for Celtic sea mixed fishery advice
- Deep sea stocks
- Stocks with no ICES advice
- Geographic flexibility
- Picked Dogfish (spurdog)
- Prohibited species
- Management of discards, landing obligation and TAC deductions
- Technical measures
- Multi-year strategies for non-quota stocks
- Later exchanges of data on non-quota stocks
- Seabass monitoring, management and assessment
The annual negotiations with the EU are one important part of a bigger set of negotiations that ultimately have a profound influence on where we can fish, and how, and how much.
The TCA obviously sets the framework for fisheries relations with the EU and enshrines the asymmetric balance on access to each other’s waters and quota shares was at the heart of the Common Fisheries Policy and continues under the TCA. Until 2026, the TCA will shape the outcome of annual negotiations. What happens after that date is an open question. The EU is confident that there are sufficient dissuasive powers within the TCA to make the UK think twice about acting as any other normal coastal state. Time will tell.
The failure to reach fisheries agreements with Norway or Faroes, reflects the turbulent adjustment period before things settle down into a new equilibrium.
Where fishing sits in the Government’s priorities in the interim and around 2026 will be critical. Few predicted that fishing would become a totemic issue within the UK’s departure from the EU, but it was the last issue to be “settled” in the TCA and leaves a lasting and potentially toxic legacy.
Our immediate request will now be for a meeting with Defra/MMO to understand were we have got to in the wake of the TCA and annual negotiations, and what our options might be from moving forward from here.