The decision for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union was campaigned for in 2016. It lasted almost five years with the UK leaving the EU in January 2021. Fishing was one of the final terms that took much debate to settle on as regaining UK waters was a pivotal area of the campaign to leave the EU.
UK in a changing Europe who are the authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations summed up the deal as: “there will be a five and a half year adjustment period, starting from January 2021, during which the value of the catch the UK can take in its own Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) will increase incrementally upto an average of 25%.”
Fishing plays a minimal part in the economy but holds a high rank on the political front. Statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that in 2020, fishing contributed just £437 million to the UK economy compared to the financial services industry which contributed a large sum of £126,000 million.
The deal raises the debate over the access to markets versus the access to waters. As we get nearer 2026, fishing boats from the UK will get a greater share of the fish from UK waters. Most of the transfer of this greater share of fish will occur in the first year of the adjustment period in 2021.
BBC highlighted: “under plans outlined in the deal, EU fishing quota in UK waters will be reduced by 15% in the first year (2021) and 2.5 percentage points each year after”.
In total, this will amount to 25% of EU boats fishing rights in UK waters to be transferred over to British vessels between 2021 and 2026. This gives way for UK boats to have access to a greater amount of fish somewhere in the region of £135-145 million per year by 2026.
On the right is a bar graph of the proportion of UK fish exports going to the EU in 2019.
According to BBC “In 2019, the UK fishing industry exported more than 330,000 tonnes of fish to the EU.”
It is evident that access to EU markets is influential and must be maintained to ensure the economy is not disrupted. The UK can exclude EU boats from UK waters entirely post 2026, however, the EU could respond by depositing taxes on British fish exports as well as denying UK boats from fishing in EU waters.
Therefore, if the UK wishes to continue making money on their fish they would need to come to an agreement with the EU, otherwise they would be at risk of losing a major export that generates large sums of money.
I contacted The Copper Clam, a restaurant that serves fresh seafood sourced from local suppliers, located on Brighton seafront. The restaurant has been open for takeaway over the last three weekends and is known for its local fish and lobster.
I spoke to the Owner, Kay Kolakovic, to see if she had any information that would be relevant to my topic. What I found most interesting was Kay’s argument of Brexit having little impact on fishing and sourcing fish; arguing lockdown is the dilemma.
Kay said: “A lot of the restaurant’s don’t have outdoor spaces, so until the 17th of May you can’t be indoors which has messed everything up completely for us and suppliers.”
It is clear that many businesses have suffered over the national lockdowns with restrictions making it difficult to operate. Even if restaurants can comply with restrictions and offer outdoor space for people to eat at the restaurant, the space is not big enough meaning the demand is still low.
Since 2021 is the first year where the largest proportion of fishing rights are handed back to the UK fishing industry from the EU, it has allowed UK boats to fish at greater distances in their own territorial waters and catch more fish. This has suppressed the lack of supply of seafood slightly.
I asked Kay if the restaurant’s supply has been affected since the trade deal was agreed upon to which she replied: “There has been very little in the way of local fish or lobster because they can’t export it” and that “lockdown has decimated the local trade”.
In the current climate of lockdown, local trade of fishing in East Sussex has been affected due to government restrictions. The lack of demand by restaurants and hotels means suppliers are not emptying their pots, which has resulted in local trade to decline. In terms of supply, Brexit hasn’t had a great effect on The Copper Clam but during lockdown the inability to welcome customers as normal without restrictions has.
In an article from Express in January, they highlighted “The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced they are putting in place a £23 million compensation package for firms exporting fish and shellfish to the EU that can show they have suffered ‘genuine loss’ from the trade deal.”
Environmental Secretary, George Eustice, said: “This £23 million scheme will provide crucial support for fishermen and seafood exporters, who have experienced delays and a lack of demand for fish from the restaurant industry in the UK and Europe.”
When talking about the fishing market Kay told me: “The biggest market for lobster and crab from these waters was France, it’s a huge industry.”
This made it clear that EU markets hold a high value for exports. France’s market across the channel gets many of its lobster and crab from UK waters, meaning that regular talks in the future on the ‘access to markets versus access to waters’ situation still need to be agreed upon on an annual basis leading up to 2026, to ensure a solution is suitable for both sides.
Restaurants have experienced issues over the past months due to the lack of demand from customers. Restrictions during lockdown have meant that restaurants can’t operate as usual, with people eating inside and out. Therefore, a lack of demand has created a lack of supply of seafood, negatively affecting local trade in East Sussex.
Lockdown and its restrictions has constituted the downturn in local trade of seafood more than brexit, as Kay said in her own opinion: “it’s lockdown not brexit that I blame.”