Scottish Fishing

Scottish Fisheries: The First Brexit Battleground

Published: 10 February 2020
Author: David Bell

Fishing and Brexit go hand in hand. The UK fishing industry is dominated by Scottish production, and the Scottish Government will argue for a prominent role when negotiations around EU market access take place, states David Bell. But, how will this impact intergovernmental relations between the Scottish and UK Governments? 

Fishing and Brexit go hand in hand. Removal of EU boats from UK waters was one of the key demands of Leave supporters. With the introduction of the new Fisheries Bill, the UK Government aspires to take back the power to act as an independent coastal state. Thus, from the end of the transition period, the UK will claim the right to control who can fish in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). That right may be modified by whatever trade agreement is reached with the EU.

The October 2019 Political Declaration committed the UK and EU to:

“use their best endeavours to conclude and ratify their new fisheries agreement by 1 July 2020 in order for it to be in place in time to be used for determining fishing opportunities for the first year after the transition period.”  Political Declaration, October 2019 para 74.

With Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands, France and Spain all keen to have continued access to UK waters, agreement will not be easy. Excluding boats from these countries from UK waters could seriously damage some small, but vocal, coastal communities. They will certainly press their governments to take a tough stance with the UK.

The EU controls access to continental seafood markets, the principal destination both for fish caught by UK boats and for farmed fish. This is a strong bargaining chip for the EU which continental fish interests may be keen to exploit. UK firms selling into the EU market are likely to face a mixture of tariffs and regulation that will inevitably add to their costs, making them less competitive.

To which parts of the industry will this benefit accrue? The UK fishing industry is dominated by Scottish production. This is partly because it can access a much larger share of the UK EEZ than the other nations (see map). In 2018, more whitefish and pelagic fish were landed in Shetland than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. The fish most likely to become available if EU boats are given more restricted access to the UK EEZ are hake, herring, mackerel and saith. Landings of these fish in Scotland were valued at £129.7m: the comparable figure for England was £7.6m. Thus, Scottish production already substantially exceeds that in England in those fish stocks likely to freed up by EU exit. This could see the Scottish fishing industry emerge as the main beneficiary of increased access to fishing quota within the UK EEZ.

But capture fishing is a relatively small industry, comprising only 0.12% of UK GDP. Trade negotiations will cover a wide spectrum of industries and services. Inevitably, there will be trade-offs between sectors. One possible trade-off that has been mooted for fishing is with financial services. This sector contributed £132 billion to the UK economy in 2018 and 1.1 million jobs. There was a surplus in financial services trade of £44 billion and the sector contributed £29 billion in tax (£557m per week). This industry may be less popular than fishing for a variety of reasons, but its tax contribution to support public services is worth more than 30 times the entire output of fishing.

Whereas trade is a reserved competence under the devolution settlement, fishing is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Scotland’s contribution to catch fishing dominates that of the other UK nations. Scotland also dominates the fish farming sector and has strong interest in fish processing, which together are more important economically, but less vocal, than catch fishing. Each of these sectors has a direct interest in negotiations around EU market access. The Scottish Government will no doubt argue strongly for a prominent role when the future of these sectors is discussed. Given the strength of the industry in Scotland, it is difficult to see how UK-EU fishing negotiations would not include the Scottish Government as an active partner. 

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