Climate Change and Brexit Upsetting EU Fishers and Markets

Photo: Monica Medina

The United Kingdom is threatening to close its waters to fishers from other countries in Europe once it leaves the European Union next week, and if it does, the impact would be immediate and severe on fishing communities in neighboring nations that are now seeing their local fish stocks decline due to climate change.  A new study by scientists from the University of Aberdeen and the US non-profit EDF published last week in the journal Ecography confirmed the problem — that fish populations in the Northeast Atlantic are moving northwards, and species which were once limited to southern European waters, like hake, have expanded the area they occupy, while species found in northern European waters, such as cod, have contracted.

Why This Matters:  One of the key issues in the Brexit negotiations that will begin after the U.K. formally leaves the EU on Friday is bound to be fisheries – right now all EU nations have free access to the U.K.’s lucrative fishing grounds.  President Macron of France vowed that fishing will be treated “as an essential economic interest for our country that must be defended” in the talks.  And with climate change, the stakes are even higher for France and other EU nations because the U.K. is on the “winning” side of the fish migrations that will only get worse as the waters of the North Atlantic continue to warm.  From the looks of it, neither the EU or the UK is willing to back down when it comes to fishing rights.  That could scuttle the entire Brexit deal and set off a trade war between the U.K. and Europe at the end of 2020 when negotiations must conclude.

Fishing Is Important to the Economies of Coastal Communities in the U.K. and the EU

According to the Financial Times, “EU diplomats fear that a post-Brexit negotiation covering everything from trade in goods to financial services — which accounted for 6.9 percent of UK gross domestic product in 2018 — could become snarled up on fish.” Under current EU law, there are catch limits on fisheries that limit the volume of fish that can be caught from each stock and then these quotes are divided up among the European nations.  After Brexit, the U.K. won’t be bound by the EU fishing limits, and they can bar European fishers from fishing in U.K waters.  And the U.K.’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has promised to not “trade away” the U.K.’s fishing rights in the negotiation.

But, but, but if the U.K. bans European fishing fleets from its waters going forward, then the Europeans may block or put high tariffs on fish products imported into Europe from the U.K. — thus essentially blocking their markets from U.K. fish exports. And that could hurt U.K. fishers because half of all the fish caught there are currently sold in the EU.

And climate change exacerbates this problem because the movement of the fish stocks from the EU north will mean the European catch limits on those species will no longer apply in U.K. waters.  Currently, 70 fish stocks straddle the waters between the U.K. and the EU, and much of the fish caught in the U.K.’s waters are currently processed in the EU.

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