The Northern Agreement with Norway: a new model for the future?

The Northern Agreement with Norway: a new model for the future?

by Neil Stratton
article from Friday 10, July, 2020

A NUMBER OF previous articles in this series have looked at the EU’s fisheries agreement with Norway. The first two of these totted up who caught how much of what and where, the third argued, on the basis of the first two, that what the agreement really achieves is a barter deal to swap EU (but essentially British) Mackerel for Norwegian Cod (that generally goes to the continent) – and then the fourth proposed ways in which a bilateral agreement between the UK and Norway might transfer the benefit of the existing agreement from the EU27 to the UK. 

So much for how the agreement has worked in practice. Let me consider the future now that we shall no longer be bound by the Northern Agreement and the EU cannot trade UK fish for the benefit of its remaining member states.

The EU’s agreement with Norway is of interest to the UK not just because the way it has been operated in the past has been to the UK’s disadvantage and that disadvantageous relationship needs to be rebalanced – but because it is sometimes held out as model for a future fisheries agreement between the UK and the EU27. 

To quote from page 19 of the UK Government’s February 2020 publication The Future Relationship with the EU The UK’s Approach to Negotiations, section 3, paragraph b of the Agreement on Fisheries, concludes, “… future fishing opportunities should be based on the principle of zonal attachment, which better reflects where fish live, and is the basis for the EU’s fisheries agreement with Norway.” So, is the agreement a good model for the UK’s future fisheries agreement with the EU27?   

There are a series of questions that need to be considered here. In the first place, what is meant by ‘zonal attachment’, does it in fact form the basis for the EU’s agreement with Norway, and, if it does, would it make sense to adopt the same principle for a future relationship between the UK and the EU27?

Zonal Attachment

The principle of zonal attachment means that the fishing opportunities allocated to a fleet are based on the size of the stock of the species in question living in the corresponding EEZ rather than being based on the principle of relative stability, which the EU wittingly chose to use, the EU27 continues to use and would like to see applied in the UK EEZ.

The problem lies in establishing the size of stock living in the zone in question. Heretofore, estimates of stock sizes made by the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES), the international authority of choice referred to earlier in section b and the source of much of the data the EU currently uses for setting TACs, have generally been made for geographically distinct stocks such as ‘Plaice in the North Sea (Sub-Area 4)’ rather than for national or supra-national EEZs such as the UK or EU27 EEZ. Is it envisaged that in future the ICES will provide separate stock estimates for the UK and EU27 EEZs or parts thereof. If so, when are these estimates going start to be made available, since the new fisheries agreement – should it be possible to conclude one – is supposed to come into force in January 2021.

Since the UK and the EU27 have yet to agree any new fisheries agreement, far less one based on the principles advanced by the UK in its proposals of February 2020, the ICES has, presumably, not yet been tasked with drawing up these stock estimates, since only one of the parties, the UK, thinks they are relevant. Should there be a breakthrough in the negotiations and the EU27 accede to the UK’s proposals – and at present the EU27 position, at least in public, is a very different one – is there time for the ICES to rework its population estimates in relation to national or supra-national EEZs so that the new arrangements can come into force in 2021?

Has the UK itself already reworked ICES data in order to come up with its own stock estimates for the UK EEZ to use as the basis for future TACs in the UK EEZ? If it has, is there a cat in hell’s chance that the EU27 would accept them?

The nature of the EU-Norway Agreement

Article 2 of the Agreement on Fisheries between the European Economic Community and the Kingdom of Norway, which dates from 1980, states:

  1. Each Party shall, as appropriate, determine annually for its area of fisheries jurisdiction, subject to adjustment when necessary to meet unforeseen circumstances, and on the basis of the need for rational management of the living resources:
    1. The total allowable catch for the individual stocks or complexes of stocks, taking into account the best scientific evidence available to it, the interdependence of stocks, the work of appropriate international organizations and other relevant factors;
    2. After appropriate consultations, allotments for fishing vessels of the other Party in accordance with the objective of establishing a mutually satisfactory balance in their reciprocal fisheries relations, and the conditions prescribed in the Annex.

Although there have been numerous subsequent and more specific agreements between the two parties, this agreement still forms the basis for their fisheries relationship. Notwithstanding the fact that it does not use the term zonal attachment and it makes no specific reference to the ICES – it dates from 40 years ago – what Article 2 effectively means is zonal attachment – each party determines the TAC for its own EEZ – in mortgage parlance, it self-certifies its own TAC and, in so far as it sets a TAC based on what it considers to be the size and population structure of the stock, it self-certifies the stock – and how much the other party’s vessels may take from it.

How has the agreement with Norway played out in practice and what is the mutually satisfactory balance that it has established? Table 1 summarizes total average annual landings by Norway and the EU28 from the Norwegian and EU28EEZs between 2010 and 2016. For the sake of clarity, Table 1 only considers the EU28 and Norway.

Table 1: Balance in the EU28 – Norway fishery relationship

EU28 NE Atlantic landings based on DS filter of 2017 data call for all tables in this article.

The first point to make is that the ‘mutually satisfactory balance’ that has resulted from the negotiations between the parties pursuant to the basic agreement and the various subsidiary ones for this or that year, species or area has resulted in landing ratios that differ from those you would expect if zonal attachment ruled in so far as landings reflect quotas and quotas reflect stock sizes.

If the net result of the various agreements reflected zonal attachment then landings by a fleet should match landings from its EEZ or, put another way, the share of the pot landed by a fleet should match the share taken from its EEZ. As you can see from Table 1, they don’t. The Norwegian fleet landed 42.3% of total landings but only 38.7% of total landings were from the Norwegian EEZ. A divergence of 3.6 percentage points might not seem much; but, given that almost 84% of Norwegian landings were from the Norwegian EEZ and almost 95% of EU28 landings from the EU28 EEZ and that the divergence from zonal ratios can only have been generated by the landings taken from the other party’s EEZ, it becomes a much more significant discrepancy.

As argued in previous articles, the EU – Norway agreement is not one based on zonal attachment with reciprocal opportunities negotiated in each-others’ EEZs to promote operational efficiency and flexibility but that continue to reflect zonal attachment ratios. Rather it is one that wittingly goes off piste and trades tonnage for value: Blue Whiting and Mackerel for Cod; opportunities in UK waters for Norwegian boats in exchange for opportunities in Norwegian waters for EU27 boats. Even in the case of those species where there is two-way traffic, and where you might argue it is being driven by efficiency and flexibility, it is UK Saithe and Herring the Norwegians are catching and non-UK boats that are landing Norwegian Saithe and Herring. Yet more resource transfer disguised as more efficient exploitation. Daylight robbery masquerading as operational flexibility.

A model for the future

Knowing what we now know about the nature of the beast, is it one that could form the basis of future fisheries relations between the UK and the EU27, albeit with differences in the details of what a ‘mutually satisfactory balance’ would look like? After all, surely the EU27 would be happy with such a deal given that it has signed and repeatedly renewed such a one with Norway and another with the Faroe Islands? Surely, we may take it as read that so principled and consistent an entity as the EU27 would be eager for a deal based on such principles?

Maybe, maybe not. Unlike Norway, the UK has had the pleasure of being part of the EU and its CFP for the last half century or so. During this time, not only has the EU expanded but so has the extent to which states exert control over the waters off their coasts. We went into the EEC with territorial waters extending out to 12 nautical miles. We leave the EU with an EEZ reaching out (in places) to 200 nautical miles. 

The EEC dusted down the CFP and fired up its engine just before the accession of the UK, Ireland and Denmark in order to ensure the boats of its then six members might continue to roam the seas. This was the principal reason why Norway decided not to proceed with its accession.

The current fishery relationship between Norway and the EU28, as outlined above, is very different in both its legal framework and in the ‘mutually satisfactory balance in their reciprocal fisheries relations’ to the current situation between the EU27 and the UK.  The EU28 – Norway agreement is a balanced one, the current relationship between the EU27 and the UK is heavily weighted in the EU27’s favour. Stuff principles, why would the EU27 want to move to a Norway model for its future fisheries relations with the UK?

Table 2 models the current balance (2010-2016 averages) between the UK and the EU27 in the same way as Table 1does for Norway and the EU28. This is a balance that, for obvious reasons, the UK would like to consign to history and the EU27 would like to maintain. 

Table 2: Current balance in the EU27 – UK fishery relationship

Table 2 is based on the principle of relative stability as opposed to the zonal attachment followed by barter of Table 1. The net result is that whilst the UK lands a similar proportion of fish from its own EEZ to that landed by Norway, the EU27 lands a far lower proportion of its landings (60.2% as opposed to 94.2%) from its own EEZ than the EU28 did in relation to Norway.

Table 3 models a thought experiment. What if the relationship between the UK and the EU27 was similar to the EU28’s relationship with Norway? Each fleet caught the bulk of its landings in its own EEZ with some two-way cross-boundary opportunities to allow operational flexibility and some specific trades to fill in the gaps in each party’s fishing opportunities. Say, purely hypothetically, the UK were to offer to trade a similar share of low value pelagics such as Mackerel and Herring that are largely caught in the UK EEZ for smaller tonnages of higher value fish such as flatfish where the UK’s share is not as dominant as it is for pelagics – rather in the way the EU28 and Norway have traded Mackerel for Cod.

So, in Table 3, overall landings are unchanged, landings from the EEZs are unchanged. The UK catches 94.2% of its landings from the UK EEZ, just as the EU28 does in its relations with Norway, and the EU27 catches 83.6% from the EU27 EEZ, as Norway does from the Norwegian in its current relationship with the EU28. Working from those fixed values, a little bit of algebra then fills in the rest of Table 3 as follows.

Table 3: A possible future balance in the EU27 – UK fishery relationship

This is just one possible picture of what zonal attachment followed by a bit of barter might look like. The EU27’s share of the NE Atlantic pot is now down to 56% from 75%. The UK’s up to 44% from 24.8%. Not as attractive for the EU27 as the current position modelled in Table 2 but considerably more attractive, in tonnage terms, than full bloodied zonal attachment, as modelled (on the basis of landing ratios, not stock assessments) in Table 4

Table 4: A fully zonally attached EU27 – UK fishery relationship

As pointed out in previous articles, the EU28 – Norway relationship, though not balanced in terms of tonnage, has been constructed to be balanced in terms of value. In the case of Norway, the EU has been trading Blue Whiting and Mackerel for Cod. In the case of the UK and the EU27, the UK could offer Herring, of which it will have an abundance of additional landings following a zonally attached redistribution, in exchange for Plaice, Common Sole or Turbot, where it suffers a – relative – dearth. The price of a tonne of Herring is roughly a sixth that of Plaice. 

Alternatively, the UK EEZ accounts for a high proportion of Sand-eel and Norway Pout landings – low value fish processed for industrial purposes – but the UK fleet lands virtually none of these species. The UK could offer to forgo the landings of these species a redistribution would bring it in exchange for higher value flatfish. Like the EU28 – Norway agreement, it would be unbalanced in terms of tonnage, but balanced in terms of value. Turbot and Common Sole are worth over fifty times as much as Sand-eels. A hundred thousand tonnes of Sand-eels for an extra couple of thousand tonnes of Turbot and Common Sole? (see the Brexit-Watch Lowlife and Mixed Bag articles) These are just examples, there are  plenty of other options for turning Table 4 into Table 3 at little or no financial cost to the UK.

But why bother?

A fully zonally attached redistribution (modelled in these articles on the basis of landings analysis rather than EEZ-based stock assessments that don’t yet exist – at least in the public domain) would see the UK gain share for virtually every fish species – some more than others – but there are almost no downsides. Why not simply push for or impose the new zonally attached distribution? If the gains for certain species were still not enough to satisfy UK requirements or there were surpluses in others: buy and sell in the market place. The EU27 might huff and puff about tariffs but the UK’s future domination of the supply chain means that a weapon that is always double-edged would cut much more painfully one way than the other.

There’s much talk of reciprocal fishing opportunities in order to manage shared stocks flexibly and efficiently but the reality is that most coastal states land most of their fish from their own EEZs. As pointed out earlier, the EU28 lands 94.2% of the fish it lands from the EU-Norwegian EEZs from the EU28 EEZ, and much of what lands from the Norwegian EEZ is driven by trade rather than operational flexibility. Iceland suspended its agreement with the EU and the sky didn’t fall in. Iceland and Norway do have a reciprocal fishing relationship but between 2010 and 2016 Iceland was landing 1.2% by tonnage of its total landings from the Norwegian EEZ. Norwegian landings from the Faroe Islands EEZ averaged 13.8 kt and were less than 1% by tonnage of its landings from its own EEZ. Although, in passing, it is worth pointing out that over the seven years in question its landings, which were dominated by Blue Whiting, ranged from 5 tonnes to 81,835 tonnes, and this is one of the reasons for a bit of flexibility: average is not the same as always.

Other than short-sightedness, there is nothing to prevent two coastal states sharing a common stock from agreeing TACs for their respective EEZs based on the overall stock size and the proportion living in each zone, and then landing all or almost all of their quota from their own EEZ.

To that end, not only does Table 4 model fleet landings on the basis of EEZ shares, it assumes a fleet lands all of its landings from its own EEZ. Why don’t we simply draw inspiration from it? Set TACs for the UK EEZ based on the fishing area recommendations of the ICES, which the EU declares to be its gold standard of independent scientific advice, by applying the shares of landings from the UK EEZ derived by analysing the EU’s own database, as EH99 has done; and challenge the EU27 to adopt the same ICES-based TACs and use its own database to calculate TACs for its own EEZ. 

Since the same ICES-based fishing area TAC would be used as the ultimate authority and the same database would be used to calculate EEZ shares, the EU27 is not being asked to accept anything it does not already adopt or host and that is not already in the public domain, and the resulting aggregate TACs for the UK and EU27 EEZs should be no higher than the TACs that would have been set for an EU28 EEZ. What could be more reasonable?

If the EU27 is amenable to such an offer, it would then be possible to go one step further and negotiate limited two-way reciprocal opportunities to allow fleets to engage in hot pursuit over EEZ boundaries, iron out annual fluctuations and so on. If the EU is not amenable, close the UK EEZ to EU27 boats – as Iceland has – and challenge the EU27, which is avowedly committed to setting TACs based on independent scientific advice to achieve Maximum Sustainable Yields (MSYs), to justify its actions if it sets TACs at above that level or if it allows the catching of under-sized and/or immature fish?

Since over half of the EU28 EEZ in the NE Atlantic north of 47°N[1] lies in the UK EEZ, and a very high proportion of the stocks of certain species live in the UK EEZ; if the EU27 strove to land the quantities it currently lands without fishing in the UK EEZ the result would be excessive fishing pressure over large parts of the EU27 EEZ. Sooner or later the EU27would have to come to terms with the reality of the situation: it is no longer a major fishing power in the NE Atlantic.

However, if, as and when we get to the point of the EU27 accepting quotas based on recent shares of landings from EEZ or EEZ-based stock assessments – if, as and when they become available – why stop at limited cross-boundary fishing opportunities? Why not, once common sense has dawned, simply continue to treat the UK and EU27 EEZs as one common EEZ, for fishing purposes; but with the quotas based on the principle of zonal attachment rather than relative stability and fishing in the UK EEZ, which, as mentioned above, exceeds the area of the EU27 EEZ north of 47°N, subject to UK regulations and monitoring. It is a pill that the EU27 would no doubt find distinctly unpalatable but all the best medicines taste foul.

Resource Share

Why would that be better for the UK (and the EU27) than the EU28 – Norway model of EEZ-based fishing with limited and defined cross-boundary barter?

From the UK’s point of view, it rights the thing that is most wrong with the current CFP: the principle of relative stability.

That being said, although the UK’s EEZ is the largest one in the NE Atlantic apart from Norway’s, it is contiguous on virtually all sides with the EEZ’s of neighbours – the EU27, Norway or the Faroe Islands – and only extends its full 200 nautical miles to the west of the Hebrides. Apart from in its SW corner, much of the Norwegian EEZ extends the full 200 nm out to international waters and marches with the EEZ of no other coastal state.

As explained in previous articles, the EU database locates landings to the level of the ICES rectangle. It does not record where within these 30 x 30 nm boxes a fish was caught and if, again as explained in previous articles, a fish was landed from a rectangle traversed by an EEZ boundary it is not possible to state with certainty which EEZ it was taken from. Although there are methods for estimating the proportion taken from this or that EEZ what they deliver are just that; estimates, not certainty.  

In the Irish Sea, much of the English Channel and the southern North Sea a high proportion of the rectangles are such boundary rectangles and virtually all are either boundary rectangles or adjacent to boundary rectangles – the Straits of Dover are, after all, less than 20 nm wide, Ulster is just over 10 nm from the Mull of Kintyre, the Republic of Ireland not a whole lot further in the next rectangle. This means that the proportion of rectangles where there is uncertainty over landing allocation is high and the distances a fish or shoal needs to swim in order to move from one EEZ to another are relatively short.

Most of the figures quoted in this series of articles are annual averages; usually, but not solely, for the period from 2010 to 2016. The figures for individual years can and do differ from such averages (think back to the reference to Norwegian landings of Blue Whiting from the Faroe Islands EEZ or the series of Brexit-Watch articles that looked at how the proportion of pelagics landed from the UK EEZ has changed over time). 

Likewise, they are averages for full years but fish move over the course of a year, whether randomly or in seasonal migrations, and the places whence they are landed at any specific point in the year may differ from the average for the whole year. Given the proximity of much the UK EEZ to EEZ boundaries – the Shetlands are roughly 180 nm west of Norway and the boundary between the UK and Norwegian EEZs runs some 90 nm to the east of the islands – the importance of being able to operate flexibly across boundaries is much greater than when fishing in areas well away from any such boundary.

Most of the figures used in these articles are for national fleets and EEZs. What is true for a nation as a whole may not be true for specific ports or fishing vessels, particularly in the case of smaller, shorter range vessels.

In short, the retention of a common fishing area but with quotas based on zonal attachment rather than relative stability combines operational flexibility and holistic stock management with enhanced opportunities for UK fishermen. I would suggest that not only is this better for the UK, it is better for the EU27. Granted fishing opportunities for EU27 fishermen would decline with such an arrangement; but they are going to decline whatever the EU27 does and such an arrangement does at least offer them coordinated management and flexibility.

Since such zonally attached fishing opportunities would no longer necessarily be primarily exercised in a fleet’s home EEZ but anywhere within the common fishing area subject to quota; might it not be more accurate to refer to such quotas as being based on resource share

After a first degree in zoology followed by research in developmental genetics, Neil Stratton worked for a number of European publishers before beginning an analysis of European fish landings with the think tank EH99 in the spring of 2018. The recently published report Fair Shares for All is based on this analysis.


[1] Just south of Ushant, the boundary between Sub-areas VII and VIII. This is a more limited area than that covered by the DS filter used for the tables.

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