The UK or EU - which is the model union for the Scottish fishing industry?

The UK or EU - which is the model union for the Scottish fishing industry?

by Neil Stratton
article from Thursday 9, April, 2020

THE SNP AND FELLOW TRAVELLERS would have us believe that Scotland is being held back on all fronts by being shackled to a United Kingdom dominated by England. Now, following the vote to leave the EU, nationalists go further and claim a xenophobic England (the narrative conveniently overlooks the fact that Wales also voted leave) is dragging an unwilling Scotland down the plughole of Brexit. So awful is the prospect that the SNP promises to seek readmission to the European Union just as soon as it can escape from under the English jackboot. But would it be a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire?

I invite the reader to look at the case of the fishing industry to see whether the deal an independent Scotland might expect from the EU would actually be better than the one it already gets from the UK.

The EU administers fish stocks in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of its member states as a common good and follows two fundamental principles – relative stability and non-discriminatory access – when deciding the fishing opportunities or quotas to allocate to the fishing fleets of its individual members.

Relative stability means that the share of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) of a particular species in a given area allocated to a particular national fleet always remains the same. The quota may go up or down in absolute terms as the tonnage of a fish species that it is deemed can be caught sustainably goes up or down; but the proportion stays the same.

Non-discriminatory access means that a national fleet may catch its quota anywhere within the area for which it is allocated, regardless of whether it is fishing in its own EEZ or that of another member state.

How the EU cuts the cake

What share of the cake have these two guiding principles delivered for the UK? Answering this question in terms of the quota share is complicated by the fact that the EU does not allocate its members a single overall quota but separate ones for each individual species and, in many cases, specified fishing zones. The resulting mosaic of fixed but different percentages for different species and areas applied to TACs that can and do fluctuate from one year to the next means that it is an ever-changing picture and that, in any event, having done so, the question then arises of what share is fair?

Another way of analysing the share of the cake and answering the question of whether the share is fair is to look at what is caught. A national fleet is allowed to catch up to but not more than its allocated quota unless additional quota is purchased from another quota holder. Catch therefore reflects but is not necessarily identical with quota. Unlike quota, which is not allocated to a particular EEZ, the ICES rectangles from which fish were landed are recorded in the EU’s Scientific Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) database. By overlaying a map of EEZ boundaries on this grid of rectangles it is possible to relate landings to the EEZ where they were caught.

If one does this, one can calculate both the tonnage that a national fleet caught and the tonnage landed from an EEZ in order to see whether what a nation’s fisherpersons catch matches the bounty that its waters yield. Working for the thinktank EH99 I have analysed the EU’s database and calculated what national fleets have been catching – and where they have been catching it from.

Apart from the UK, eight members of the EU27 regularly fish in the UK EEZ (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden) and Table 1 compares what the UK and these fleets caught in the UK EEZ and the EU27 EEZ north of 47°N between 2010 and 2016.

Table 1: EEZ versus Fleet landings[1]


What Table1 shows is that for the years in question 56.3 per cent of the fish landed from the UK and EU27 EEZs north of 47°N by the UK and EU27 fleets was landed from the UK EEZ yet the UK fleet only landed 27.5 per cent of the fish by tonnage. The UK fleet landed 610.4 kilotonnes (kt) from the UK and EU27 EEZs but UK and EU27 fleets landed 1,251.7 kt from the UK EEZ – meaning that landings from the UK EEZ were 641.3 kt more than the UK fleet landed.

That’s the share the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy delivers for the UK fishing industry: roughly half what is caught in UK waters. Is that fair?

How the UK cuts the cake

Although, at the UK level, fishing is a devolved matter, so far as the EU is concerned it is not. It does not allocate quota to Wales or Northern Ireland, Scotland or England; it allocates it to the UK and leaves it to the UK to divvy it up between the various home nations and their fleets by whatever system is chooses, just as it leaves it to all its other member states to allocate their quotas to their fleets.

How does the United Kingdom share out the quota it receives from the European Union? Table 2 uses relative EEZ surface area as a proxy for resource share and compares average annual landings by the Scottish and other UK fleets over the same time period as Table 1 with the relative sizes of the Scottish EEZ and the EEZ of the rest of the UK. What Table 2 shows is that the Scottish fleet landed 63.1 per cent of the UK total, whilst the Scottish EEZ represented 58.9 per cent of the area of the UK EEZ.

Table 2: UK landings versus EEZ area

The system used by the United Kingdom for sharing out what fishing opportunities the European Union has tossed its way has resulted in a much closer match between catches and resource share for its home nations than the system adopted by the European Union has done for the current and former members of the European Union. If anything, the system adopted by the UK marginally favours Scotland.

How the future might cut the cake

The outcome of the negotiations between the UK and the EU27 over a new fisheries agreement to take effect from 2021 onwards are still ongoing but if they were to result in the UK landing a share of overall landings that reflected the share taken from its EEZ (i.e. 56.3 per cent), if it maintained the system it currently uses for allocating quota to the fleets of its various home nations and if future landings matched the average for 2010—2016, then Table 3 shows how Scottish and UK landings might change.

Table 3: The Promised Land

To sum up, the system used by the European Union to allocate fishing opportunities has systematically resulted in the United Kingdom receiving a much lower share of the resource than it contributes; whereas the system the United Kingdom has used to allocate fishing opportunities to the home nations, and to Scotland in particular, has resulted in shares of catches that correspond much more closely to their share of resources. Furthermore, if, as a result of the current negotiations, it secures a share that is much closer to the share it contributes, then all its constituent home nations stand to benefit and Scotland, as the nation with the largest fishing industry and the largest EEZ, stands to benefit most of all.

Which union – the United Kingdom or European Union – really best serves Scotland’s fishing industry? Which Union, Kingdom or European, offers Scotland’s fishing industry the prospect of a brighter future? And yet it is the United Kingdom the SNP would have Scotland leave and the European Union and the gruesome twosome of relative stability and non-discriminatory access it would have Scotland re-join.

[1] The figures in all the tables are the average annual landings for the years 2010 (the first year for which data is available for all EU members in the NE Atlantic) and 2016 (the last year covered by the 2017 data call).

For the sake of clarity, landings from the Norwegian and Faroese EEZs and international waters are excluded.

The source for all figures is: -- 2017 data call

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