UK and EU agree deal on fishing rights

Brussels and the UK have reached a deal on fishing rights for species spread between the two sides’ waters, in a sign of progress in bilateral relations ahead of broader Brexit talks next week. 

The two sides announced the fishing rights deal on Wednesday evening after months of negotiations that were repeatedly snarled up over disputes about how to maximise fishing access while also meeting environmental objectives. 

The deal sets catch limits for more than 70 different types of fish spread between EU and UK waters. The agreement mainly covers fishing rights for the remainder of 2021, with some catch limits for deep-sea species extending into 2022. 

The negotiations were the two sides’ first post-Brexit exercise in holding fisheries talks as two independent coastal powers. Brussels has held similar annual talks with other neighbours, such as Norway, for decades. 

Such talks are normally held ahead of the start of the calendar year to give fishermen certainty about the overall volumes of fish they can catch, but the EU-UK negotiations stretched into this year because the two sides only sealed a broader future-relationship deal in the final days of 2020. 

Fishermen have since operated under provisional arrangements, with mutual access to each other’s waters already guaranteed by the future-relationship deal. 

The two sides are obliged by international law to negotiate on how to soundly manage fish species spread between their waters. 

EU officials said that the deal was balanced, with Brussels managing to limit UK efforts to move catch quotas for haddock and other fish from the better-stocked North Sea to waters off the west coast of Scotland — something Brussels feared could end up damaging fish stocks. Britain did secure some extra flexibility for mackerel — a key priority.

Esben Sverdrup-Jensen, chief executive of the Danish Pelagic Producers Organisation, said that the deal was positive in the sense that it would hopefully unblock talks on other fisheries issues between the EU and UK.

But he said that some of the terms of the agreement were an additional blow to his members after they had already endured cuts as part of last year’s EU-UK deal.

“There is a lot of stuff in the pipeline that needs to be discussed and everything was put on hold until these bilateral discussions were dealt with,” he said. “But we are very unhappy that we were forced to give up even more quota on top of last year’s Brexit deal, because the UK pushed to set quotas for sand eel and Norway pout below the scientific advice.” 

He estimated that the deal on the pout and sand-eel quotas would cost his members approximately 10,000 tonnes in fishing rights, noting that both stocks had been certified as sustainable.

Flashpoints during the months of talks included a UK attempt to ban all fishing in the British waters that form part of the Dogger Bank area of the North Sea, a move the UK said made sense on environmental grounds, but which would have overwhelmingly affected EU vessels. 

George Eustice, UK environment secretary, acknowledged that talks had “been challenging”.

“Our aim throughout these fisheries negotiations has been to safeguard the sustainability of our fish stocks and seek an agreement that respects our new status and works for the UK fishing industry,” he said.

Maximising fishing rights for Scottish fishermen was a core UK goal in the talks.

Mairi Gougeon, Scotland’s cabinet secretary for rural affairs, said: “After months of uncertainty and disruptions as a result of Brexit, this deal will provide more clarity on fisheries arrangements for 2021.

“However, the fact remains that Scotland has been removed against our will from the European single market, which is seven times bigger than the UK market, with all the economic disruption and damage which that entails.”

Elaine Whyte of the Clyde Fishermen’s Association, which represents fishing interests on Scotland’s west coast, said that quota shifts within Scottish waters resulting from the deal appeared likely to disadvantage the area.

“We are seeing almost all stocks of fin fish, bar one, flexing west to east to satisfy the requirements of the larger fleets,” Whyte said. “This shift obviously causes community fishermen on the west coast great concern.”

The deal does not resolve the dispute between France and the UK over French fishing rights in the waters around Jersey. But EU officials said they hoped the outcome of the talks would encourage a further positive shift in relations. 

The British and French navies both sent ships to patrol the waters off Jersey last month after French complaints about conditions attached to fishing licences boiled over into a stand-off.

EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic is due to meet his UK counterpart David Frost on Wednesday next week for high-level meetings on Brexit at which recent tensions over fisheries will be on the agenda. 

Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s fisheries commissioner, said that Wednesday’s deal was positive “for the sustainable use of our marine resources”.

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