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Several colourful boats lined up sitting on a rocky beach with a cliff in the background and a man sorting out nets in the foreground
There was a vast disparity between the promises made by the pro-leave campaign to British fishermen and the fisheries deal that was ultimately struck. Photo by Carolyn Clarke/Alamy Stock Photo

British Fishermen Feared Pro-Brexit Campaigners Would Betray Them—and They Did

Fishermen overwhelmingly supported Brexit, and it came back to bite them.

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by Greg Noone

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Few communities in the United Kingdom were as supportive of Brexit as fishermen. Politicians pushing for the country to leave the European Union capitalized on the widespread perception that EU regulators favored fishermen from the continent over those from the United Kingdom when allocating fishing quotas. They promised that, post-Brexit, UK fishermen would have unfettered access to domestic waters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, an estimated 92 percent of the UK fishing community intended to vote for Brexit in 2016.

The fisheries deal that was actually struck between the United Kingdom and the European Union in January 2021, however, fell far from that vision of UK waters being preserved for UK fishermen. Rather than leading to hundreds of thousands of tonnes of extra catch for British fishermen, as promised by UK prime minister Boris Johnson, the agreement largely preserved continental fishermen’s access to the United Kingdom’s exclusive economic zone. The deal was excoriated by British fishing organizations.

In a new study, scientists have analyzed the vast disparity between the pro-leave campaign’s rhetoric and the post-Brexit reality to show how leaving the European Union has had little or no benefit at all for British fishing communities. (The UK government did not respond to requests for comment.)

A realpolitik mindset by the European Union is to blame, says Bryce Stewart, the study’s lead author and a fisheries biologist at the University of York in England. In its negotiations with the European Union, the newly autonomous UK government argued that fisheries quotas should be allocated based on where the fish actually live, a principle known as zonal attachment that would have decisively favored British fishermen. Instead, the European Union succeeded in largely preserving the status quo for its fishermen by tying the future of fishing to the passage of an overall deal on trade. This version of the agreement will stand until it comes up for renegotiation in 2026.

The UK government also went back on a promise made by Victoria Prentis, the UK minister in charge of fisheries, that EU fishermen would be excluded from a six-to-12-nautical-mile (11-to-22-kilometer) zone from the British coast.

“Something like 78 percent of fishing boats are under 10 meters in the United Kingdom, and they’re mostly fishing in that inshore zone,” says Stewart. The failure to secure that exclusion, he says, “is one of the things, from my experience, that the fishermen are most upset about.”

The study estimates that the agreement has resulted in a net increase in catch for UK fishermen of 107,000 tonnes annually. But because of the way that increase will be apportioned, the gains felt by most British fishermen will be marginal. “They’re very sort of skewed towards a couple of fish species,” says Stewart. “Half of the gains are in western mackerel, North Sea herring, and sole.”

For Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, a British fishing industry trade organization, the deal is a stunning setback—not that Deas was particularly surprised by the result. There was a strong suspicion, Deas says, that the fishing industry would be sacrificed in the larger interests of gaining a final trade deal with the European Union. “Which is why we spent something like £10,000 [US $13,000] on flags, which said No Fishing Sell-Out,” he says.

The United Kingdom will have the opportunity to renegotiate its fishing arrangements with the European Union on an annual basis after 2026. Stewart believes that any push to rearrange the deal to be based around zonal attachment is unlikely. If the United Kingdom did follow that route, he says, “I could definitely see tariffs and more non-tariff barriers being imposed [by the European Union] if the United Kingdom really went hard line on this.”

Like Deas, Stewart believes that zonal attachment probably would have been the best possible outcome from the negotiations for both sides. Such a framework, after all, would have better adapted to the changes wrought on fishing species by climate change. Counting fish, says Stewart, is like counting the trees in a forest, “except that the trees are invisible and they keep moving around.” Future fisheries agreements need to account for the migration of species to new grounds as the oceans continue to warm, he says, instead of being based on which boats fished where a decade ago.

“You can’t just keep the same system in place indefinitely,” says Stewart. “It just won’t work.”