Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)

Flag of the EU.
Flag of the European Union.

The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of twenty-seven countries following Britain’s exit in January 2020. The aim of the EU is to allow all member states to operate as a trade bloc with free movement of goods, services and workers between member states. There has also been the development of common policies on agriculture, trade, and fisheries and there is a range of other laws and regulations which apply to all nations.

Origins of the Common Fisheries Policy

In 1958 the Treaty of Rome was signed, creating the European Economic Community (which became the European Union following the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992). Fisheries became part of European law under the Treaty of Rome, although then they were classed as part of the bloc’s agricultural policy. It was not until 1970 that specific fisheries legislation was introduced, although, with Britain, Ireland and Denmark joining the European Economic Community in the early 1970s, European-wide fishing policies were not implemented for another decade. In 1983 the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) finally came into force with all EU nations with fishing industries observing a shared Exclusive Economic Zone giving nations the right to fish in each other’s waters and agreeing to catch limits that would be set by the European Council. An agreement was also reached that each nation would still control its own waters to a point twelve nautical miles from its coastline. There have been a number of reforms to the CFP since its inception, and the policy remains in place for all EU member nations today.

How Does the Common Fisheries Policy Work?

The Common Fisheries Policy sets out the rules and laws that control and govern commercial fishing across the entire European Union. As fish move across the territorial waters of different nations the EU believes they are a shared resource and the common fisheries policy sets standardised rules which apply to all EU member nations.

The official web portal of the European Union states the main aims of the CFP here, but they can be summarised as:

  • Setting out the rules so that commercial fishing in Europe is sustainable.
  • Enforce fishing regulations.
  • Prevent the size of Europe’s fishing fleet from expanding.
  • Provide funding and technical support for fishermen to make their industry more sustainable.
  • Negotiate with non-EU countries over fishing-related issues.
  • Ensure the fishing industry gets a fair price for their catches and consumers can trust the seafood they eat (through regulating the quality and labelling of fish throughout the EU).
  • Support fish farming and aquaculture.
  • Commission scientific research and data collection to inform future policy.
EU Map
Map showing the member nations of the EU as of 2016.

While the Common Fisheries Policy is well-intentioned and sets out rules and regulations that (in theory at least) support sustainable fisheries, the CFP has become immensely controversial. It is seen by many as the source of many of the problems with Europe’s fish stocks. While there have been attempts to reform the CFP in recent years the criticisms continue and are examined below.

A Single EEZ: Since the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, all countries across the world have an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which extends 200 nautical miles from the country’s coastline. Within this zone each country can exploit, control and manage the resources of the sea and seabed in any way they wish (although they must provide free passage across their EEZ to vessels from other nations). Within the European Union, it is seen as beneficial to have a single EEZ for all member states. EU nations therefore only control a zone stretching to twelve miles of their coastline – the rest of their EEZ is combined with other member nations to create the largest EEZ in the world (as the picture below shows).

This meant that EU fishermen could effectively fish anywhere in the EU’s EEZ, and the same rules and regulations would apply to all. Fishermen from any EU nation can fish freely within any other EU country’s waters (although licensing, quotas and other specific regulations may still apply).

European Union EEZ
The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the European Union prior to Britain’s withdrawl.

Total Allowable Catches (TACs): The Common Fisheries Policy sets the amount of fish that can be caught in each area. This decision is based on scientific advice on fish stocks and the historical number of fish that have been caught by fishermen from that area. Total Allowable Catch levels are set every December by the Agriculture and Fisheries configuration of the Council of the European Union.

Fishing Control and Fleet Size: The Common Fisheries Policy attempts to limit the number of fishing vessels operating in EU waters. The EU’s own web portal states that: “Most fishing fleets in the EU are much too big compared to the available fish resources.” The EU attempts to limit the size of the fleet and keeps a register of all fishing vessels and officially states that the size of the fleet cannot be larger than 2003-04 levels. The attempts to control fleet size have been heavily criticised (see below).

Stopping Illegal and Unsustainable Fishing: The EU and the Common Fisheries Policy is meant to prevent illegal fishing. There are regulations over the types of fishing gear which can be used and the CFP allows certain areas to be closed to fishing to allow stocks to recover, although the interests and power of the commercial fishing lobby make this a very rare occurrence. Member states can put their own programmes to control fisheries into place such as licensing fishing vessels. While the EU often talks tough about stopping illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing it remains a huge problem as events such as the Scottish Black Fish Scandal show. An additional issue is that the huge subsidies paid to commercial fishermen are still paid out to those proven of being guilty of illegal fishing (see Subsidies section below).

Research: Part of the remit of the common fisheries is to carry out, commission and gather scientific research which is then used to inform debates and set catch levels. This research often has very little influence on the way the CFP actually operates (see Scientific Advice Ignored section below).

Subsidies: Subsidies are one of the most controversial aspects of the CFP. Subsidies are essential to the continuation of the EU’s fishing fleet as a large proportion of vessels run at a loss and require subsidies to continue operating. Around €1 billion is paid out every year.

EU Fisheries Expenditure
EU annual fisheries expenditure. Structural Intervention represents the amount of the billion Euro plus budget that is spent on subsidies and other assistance for the commercial fishing industry.

Subsidies have been spent on constructing new fishing vessels (this was phased out and then partially reintroduced in 2019), modernising existing vessels and increasing their efficiency, increasing the efficiency of land-based processing facilities and subsidising fuel costs. In some cases, fishermen receive more in subsidies than they earn from catching fish. Subsidies are handed out from central EU funds and national governments are also given EU money to give to fishermen. In a highly controversial move subsidies have been used to buy the right for EU industrial freezer trawlers to fish in the waters of developing African nations.

Criticisms of the Common Fisheries Policy
 

There are a huge amount of criticisms directed at the Common Fisheries Policy by conservationists, scientists, commercial fishermen, anglers, fishing communities, governments and the general public. As Professor Callum Roberts asks in The Unnatural History of the Sea:

“The track record of fisheries managment in Europe has been disasterous. The number of fish stocks classified as seriously overfished rose from 10 per cent in 1970 to 50 per cent by 2000. With so much expertise, how did things go so badly wrong?” (p 346)

The major issues with the Common Fisheries Policy, and the ways in which they cause conflict and concern, are examined below:

A Single EEZ: As stated above, the theory is that if fish move across European waters then it makes sense to treat the whole of Europe as one fishery with universal rules over movement, control and regulation applying to all member nations equally. The twelve miles extending from the shoreline of each nation are still sovereign waters of that country, with the common EEZ only extending from this point onwards. This means that any conservation measures which are put forward can only be enforced inside this small zone and any measures extending beyond this zone and into Europe’s EEZ would require the agreement of all member nations.

From a British perspective, this shared EEZ can be seen as a very bad deal. In 2015, EU vessels caught 683,000 tonnes of fish worth £484 million in UK waters, but UK vessels only caught 111,000 tonnes worth £114 million in EU member states’ waters. When Britain was still a member state of the EU it was pointed out by critics of the CFP that in parts of the Celtic Sea (which prior to the CFP would have been controlled by the UK) French fishermen had the right to catch three times more Dover sole and four times more cod than British fishermen. Furthermore, around 40% of the Danish fishing fleet’s total catch comes from the 200-mile zone which Britain would control if it was not in the CFP, and some Danish fishing communities rely entirely on catching fish within the bounds of what would have been Britain’s territorial waters. The criticism was that the Common Fisheries Policy and its shared EEZ have been immensely beneficial to some nations at the cost of others. As Marl Kurlansky points out in the book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Spain enthusiastically embraced the CFP, as the nation “had the highest fish consumption of almost any Western country” but “no good fishing grounds could be found within 200 miles of the Spanish coastline.” For countries such as Britain, the reverse is true, and productive fishing grounds which were once fished only by British fishermen had to be opened to all EU nations under Common Fisheries rules.

The shared EEZ can also lead to conflict. For example, throughout the 2010s French scallop fishermen have reacted with violence when British fishermen have dredged for scallops just outside of the French twelve-mile zone during a period when the French have been refraining from scallop fishing to allow stocks to recover. Since the British fishermen were outside of French waters and (just) within the EU Exclusive Economic Zone they were doing nothing wrong as per the rules of the CFP, although this so-called Scallop War does underline the issues of countries only controlling a small proportion of the seas around their nation. The same can be seen in Britain’s attempts to ban pair-trawling for bass. This method of commercial fishing sees two vessels moving through the sea dragging a vast net between them. While being a highly effective method of fishing it is destructive and has been responsible for large numbers of dolphins and porpoises being killed by the nets. Britain banned pair trawling for bass in 2004 due but as Britain was an EU member nation at the time this could only be enforced within twelve miles of Britain’s coastline and other EU vessels can still pair trawl 12½ miles off the UK coast.

FV Margiris
FV Margiris (previously known as the Abel Tasman) was banned from Australian waters in 2013 but operated off the southern coast of England in 2019.

The way in which a shared EEZ leads to a lack of control over a nation’s waters has been highlighted by super-trawlers such as  FV Margiri(previously known as the Abel Tasman). This 9,500-ton factory trawler can catch and process up to 250 tons of fish per day. It has previously been banned from operating in Australian waters due to the impact that it would have on the nation’s fish stocks. However, Britain was not able to ban the vessel from its own waters as under CFP rules FV Margiris could legally operate within Europe’s EEZ. This meant that when the FV Margiris began fishing for herring and mackerel in the English Channel in October 2019 – at one point coming within fourteen miles of the Sussex coast – there was nothing the UK government could do to stop the vessel, despite outrage from local fishermen and conservationists. Attempts to ban super-trawlers such as the Margiris from EU waters would likely be impossible to implement. Such legislation would require the unanimous support of all EU member nations, and since the Margiris is ultimately owned by a Dutch company it is highly unlikely that the nation would vote in favour of banning one of its own vessels from being able to operate in European waters.

Discards: The issue of discards is another highly controversial aspect of the Common Fisheries Policy and has gained a high level of media attention and public awareness in recent years. Discards refer to fish that have been caught by a commercial vessel and are thrown back into the sea. The reason for most discards is that a vessel has run out of quota for that species and is therefore unable to legally keep those fish and – under EU and CFP laws – have to throw them away. Fish can also be discarded for other reasons. For example, they may be too small to sell, be a species that has no commercial value, or vessels may high-grade (throw away less valuable fish to make space for a higher value species). Fish which are discarded back into the sea are almost always dead or dying, as they will have been crushed into a net and their swim bladder will have been ruptured by being dragged up from the seabed. It is estimated that in the North Sea alone around 800,000 – 900,000 tons of fish are discarded back into the sea every year.

The issue of discards was brought to public attention in 2010 when celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall began his ‘Fish Fight’ campaign to ban discards. This appeared to have some impact, as prior to this programme many members of the public were unaware that such a wasteful practice was commonplace throughout Europe’s fisheries. A debate began throughout the EU over how to proceed with discards, with consultations and plans being drawn up to formulate some kind of discard ban. In 2013, after two years of intra-EU debating, a deal was reached to ban discards as part of wider legislation to ensure all EU fishing was carried out sustainably by 2020. A discard ban for pelagic (mid-water) fish would be introduced from 2015, and a ban for demersal (bottom-dwelling) fish would be phased in between 2016 and 2019, although Portugal, Spain and France did win some exemptions as their deep-sea fishermen were allowed to continue to discard 9% of their catch, with this number going down to 7% after a few years.

As soon as the discards ban was announced there were fears that the pressure from Europe’s commercial fishing lobby, especially the nations with large fishing industries such as France and Spain, would lead to the ban being weakened considerably with loopholes granted to commercial fishermen. Indeed, this proved to be the case with MEPs voting to give fishermen a two-year delay before sanctions would be brought in for those ignoring the discards ban. Following this, it was also announced that fishermen would be able to legally discard fish that were classed as damaged by predators or disease but it was left entirely up to the fishermen to decide what constitutes a damaged or diseased fish. Conservation groups warned that many commercial fishermen would simply continue to discard healthy fish they did not want to land under the guise of fish being damaged or diseased. In turn, this led to further criticism that even with overwhelming public support for a discards ban the European Union and the Common Fisheries Policy was still not capable of passing a clear and robust piece of legislation that would prevent commercial fishermen from throwing healthy, edible fish back into the sea dead.

Total Allowable Catches (TACs): The Common Fisheries Policy sets Total Allowable Catches (TACs), which are the total amount of each species of fish that can be caught in a certain area. A huge number of organisations are involved in setting TACs with the EU working with other European agencies and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), an international agency that provides scientific data on which to base catch levels. Ultimately the decision is made by the Agriculture and Fisheries Council of the European Union. The TAC system is heavily criticised for creating an adversarial system where all member states will fight against each other for the highest possible level of catches for their fishermen when the TACs are decided every December – a system that is hardly conducive to well-managed and sustainable fisheries. Indeed, Professor Callum Roberts states that an unnamed British fisheries minister believes that the meeting is deliberately held so close to Christmas as it is only the looming threat of missing the last flight home for the holiday which forces the various arguing nations to come to an agreement.

Justus Lipsius Building
The Agriculture and Fisheries configuration of the Council of the European Union meet at the Justus Lipsius Building in Brussels every December to decide on the Total Allowable Catches of different species for each country in the EU.

Politicians will often return from the December meeting stating that gaining a high TAC for their country is a “great victory” for their country’s fishermen, even if it means catches will be higher than scientific advice recommends. The very brief European cod recovery is a perfect example of this. In 2017 reductions in catches and discards meant that cod stocks reached their highest levels in thirty-five years and North Sea cod became classed as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. This led to higher quotas and catches being set higher than scientists advised. Within two years all of the progress had been undone and North Sea cod were back to “critically low” levels with organisations such as ICES calling for catch reductions of two-thirds and the MSC removed its sustainable status for North Sea cod. For these reasons New Scientist magazine described the TAC policy as being a system which “meets the political objective of sharing fish among countries but does not protect European fish stocks.”

Overcapacity: The size of the EU fishing fleet is far too large for the number of fish that are available to catch – a fact that is clearly recognised by the EU itself. This overcapacity is a major factor in the decline of European fish stocks as it means that each country has to fight for the highest possible quota in order to allow their oversized fleet to catch enough fish to viably operate. It is also important to note that even if the EU fishing fleet does reduce in size modern technological advances mean that the fishing capacity of each individual vessel is constantly increasing. Indeed, an assessment by an Impact Committee of the EU itself stated that by 2022 the size of the EU fishing fleet would have to reduce by 40% to make up for the increasing power and efficiency that vessels gain through technological advancement. Any attempt to reduce the size of the fleet will inevitably be fought by the governments of individual countries and the various lobby groups of the European fishing industry.

Subsidies: The EU provides financial subsidies to assist and help fishermen and reduce the operational costs of fishing. These subsidies have been provided to build new vessels, upgrade existing fishing boats and make them more efficient and train and support young fishermen at the start of their careers. Subsidies have been one of the most controversial aspects of the CFP, as in many cases providing subsidies to fishermen runs counter to the EU and CFP’s aims of reducing the size of the EU’s fishing fleet and fishing within safe biological limits. In this way, subsidies are seen as the EU providing money to fund unsustainable fishing. In light of criticisms, subsidies have been reformed several times, with subsidies to build new fishing vessels being phased out in 2002, but between 2021 and 2027 around 6.1 billion will be spent on subsidising EU fishermen. While the EU claims that this money will be used to “promote sustainable fisheries and safeguard fishing communities” conservation organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund say that such subsidies mark a “strikingly regressive position” for the EU’s claims to be reforming its fisheries to operate sustainably. Dr Samantha Burgess, Head of Marine Policy at World Wildlife Fund European Policy Office says

“How can the EU hope to deliver sustainable seafood, support the long-term viability of coastal communities, and rebuild ocean health and fish populations with subsidies that will actively support overfishing? The €6 billion … is comprised of public money, and these proposals are hugely out of step with current societal concern for the health of our ocean.”

Foreign Fishing: The EU has agreements to fish in the territorial waters of twenty non-EU nations. Some of these nations such as Iceland and Norway are in Europe and it is within the interest of both parties to allow regulated fishing within each other’s waters. But controversy arises due to the fact that fifteen of the twenty nations the EU has agreements with are developing countries.

EU Fishing Agreements
EU countries as of 2019 (dark blue) and non-EU countries that the EU has fishing agreements with (light blue).

These countries are paid by the European Union to allow European vessels to fish in their waters, although the amount paid is often very low. In the book A Blue New Deal Chris Armstrong points out that the amount of money paid by the EU to fish in the waters of poorer nations averages around 5 per cent of the value of the fish they catch. EU vessels fishing in the waters of poor developing nations is seen as controversial for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is seen as evidence that European countries have depleted their own fish stocks and are now paying poor nations to exploit their stocks. Secondly, it is seen as damaging to these countries as almost all of the fish caught in their waters are sent to markets elsewhere in the world. This means that the subsistence fishermen in the developing world are having their fish stocks reduced by European vessels for the benefit of the EU’s fishing industry. Thirdly, the foreign fishing issue is seen as another aspect of overcapacity – the huge factory vessels which have been built using EU subsidies cannot usually fish in European waters as their immense fish catching ability would use up all of the quotas in a short amount of time. The EU, therefore, arranges agreements with poor African countries to allow the vessels to fish in their waters. The infamous Atlantic Dawn (the so-called ‘Ship from Hell’) is a perfect example of this. Once it had been built there was no way it would have the quota to be able to fish in European waters. Instead, an agreement was reached for it to fish in the waters of the impoverished dictatorial African nation of Mauritania – a country where a fifth of the population lives on less than the UN definition of extreme poverty of $1.25 a day and there are significant problems with modern-day slavery.

EU and Mauritania talks
EU officials hold talks with their Mauritanian counterparts over the fisheries deal in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott in September 2011.

Britain has taken the lead and attempted to end, or at least limit the EU overfishing of African fish stocks, although Spain and France have fought against attempts to limit access to African waters. Britain’s attempts appear to have come to nothing, as in 2016 the European Union signed a new €236 million (£185.2 million) four-year deal to allow factory vessels to fish in the territorial waters of Mauritania.

Scientific Advice Ignored and/or Misinterpreted: Due to the fact that the EU has to protect the interests of Europe’s commercial industry scientific advice on protecting fish stocks is often only given ignored or disregarded. The Total Allowable Catches which are agreed upon every year are the clearest example of this. Most years the catch levels for a significant number of EU fisheries are set higher than scientific advice recommends. This was the case in December 2020 when quotas for 2021 were set higher than scientists advised for around one-third of EU fish stocks. This meant that the 2013 legislation which committed the EU to fish sustainably by 2020 would not be fulfilled. Furthermore, other scientific evidence is misinterpreted. For example, Spanish fishermen have demanded higher quotas for bluefin tuna as they claim this endangered species is making a recovery, even though the scientific research clearly states that there is little evidence to prove this.

Blocks to Reform: Changing any aspect of the Common Fisheries Policy – even ones which are clearly damaging, destructive and wasteful – is very difficult indeed. This is because the EU moves at an extremely slow pace with committees, reports and impact assessments having to be carried out before any action can take place, and also because agreements need to be unanimous between all member nations before change can take place. This is a particular problem because nations such as Spain and France almost always try to derail any regulation or rule changes that will disadvantage their fishermen in any way, even if the rule change will help restore fish stocks and benefit everyone in the long term. This can be seen in the discard ban where France and Spain issued a joint declaration that aimed to allow discards to continue indefinitely (in the end they only gained small exemptions for themselves). Similarly, an attempt to ban deep-sea trawling was narrowly defeated in 2013, even though this practice causes untold damage to ancient and delicate ecosystems and runs at a loss and is only propped up by EU subsidies (note: later legislation was passed to ban trawling beyond 800 metres in 2016). The reasons for the French and Spanish blocking reform are perfectly logical: they have the largest fishing fleets and receive the most in subsidies – Spain in fact has the largest fishing fleet in Europe but does most of its fishing outside of its own territorial waters. Furthermore, CFP Reform Watch state that Spain receives around half of the total subsidies handed out by the EU.

Grimsby Fishermen in 1945
Fishermen working out of Grimsby, Lincolnshire in 1945. Today fish stocks around the British Isles are much reduced compared to the level they were at when these fishermen were working, with many claiming that the Common Fisheries Policy has played a major role in this.

Changes that do successfully take place take a long time. The discards ban took three years to agree upon and came close to being completely derailed or watered down a number of times. Even when it was agreed in late 2013 it was phased in between 2015 and 2019. This means that it took almost a decade to fully implement a system that essentially amounts to stopping fishermen from catching and then throwing away perfectly good and edible fish.

Disproportionate Influence of Small Groups: Small interest groups appear to have huge amounts of power and influence within the EU over the Common Fisheries Policy which is often disproportionate to their size. For example, Greenpeace state that there are only around thirty-four industrial trawlers from the EU that fish in African waters, but tens of millions of euros are spent to subsidise this fleet and buy the right to fish off the coast of Africa. Similarly, the EU voted in December 2013 to continue deep-sea trawling, despite the fact that only a tiny number of fishermen are employed in this form of fishing which destroys delicate deep-water ecosystems which will never be able to recover. Indeed, it can be argued that the entire European fishing industry itself is a minority group as it only provides approximately 0.1% of the EU’s total gross domestic product, although the influence and power it has leads many people to believe it is a much bigger and more economically important industry than it actually is.

Future of the Common Fisheries Policy

The failure of the Common Fisheries Policy can be summed up by the following fact: Europe has needed to become the world’s largest importer of both frozen and fresh fish products from the rest of the world as European waters – which should be hugely abundant and productive – are now too depleted to satisfy demand. The Common Fisheries Policy has left commercial fishermen, anglers, conservationists and the general public all being deeply unhappy over the state of Europe’s seas. As Brendan May, the former Chief Executive of the Marine Stewardship Council states:

“The European Common Fisheries Policy is a laughing stock in many parts of the world. People … don’t understand how Europe could get something that should be so simple so badly wrong. The extinction of its own – and the world’s – fisheries is being presided over by people who ought to know better.”

(Quoted in C. Clover, The End of the Line, p 269)

The EU is not immune to the criticism that the CFP had received. In 2011 Maria Damanaki, then the EU’s maritime commissioner, said that the Common Fisheries Policy had created a “vicious circle” of declining fish stocks and said:

“I have no problem to apologise if something is wrong … We cannot afford business as usual. Maybe ten years ago, the past, it was easier for us, in the European Commission, in governments, in the sector, to close our eyes. We cannot do that anymore because if we do our children will see fish, not on their plates, but only in pictures.”

While progress has been slow and many policies which would have protected fish stocks have been watered down, there have been some encouraging reforms of the CFP, such as the discards ban and prohibiting deep-sea fishing beyond 800 metres.

CFP Protest
Signs protesting against the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy in Kilmore Quay, Ireland.

Despite this, there can be no denying that the EU’s fish stocks remain in a depleted state. Oceana, the world’s largest marine conservation organisation, has calculated that, as of 2021, only 43 per cent of the fish stocks shared by the EU and Britain are fished sustainably. This means that the key goal (set in 2013) of EU fisheries operating sustainably by 2020 has been missed.

Outside of the EU: Iceland and Norway

Iceland and Norway are often held up as examples of how to successfully run European fisheries. Neither nation is a member of the European Union, meaning they are not signed up to the Common Fisheries Policy and fully control commercial fishing in their own waters. This has led to these two nations having some of the richest fish stocks in the world, and both have highly profitable fishing industries which require little to no subsidies from their governments.

Norway has the largest cod stocks in the world in the areas of the Norwegian Sea and Barents Sea which it controls. Many sustainable practices are employed in Norway’s fisheries, such as certain areas of the sea being permanently closed to fishing to allow fish to spawn and grow there and other areas can be closed at short notice if, for example, a large number of immature or non-quota fish are being caught. A ban on discarding cod and haddock was introduced in 1987, and this was extended to all species in 2009 – live fish caught outside of quotas must be returned to the sea, but dead or dying fish must be retained for use as food.

Alesund
Alesund in Norway, the town is home to one of the nation’s largest and most modern fishing fleets.

Norway also has a large coast guard which carries out thousands of inspections of fishing vessels each year (much more than other fishing nations) and there is a system of fines and suspension of fishing licences for fishermen who break the rules. This healthy and profitable fishery has not always existed in Norway’s waters. In the 1970s and 1980s the nation wrestled with overfishing which was exacerbated by high levels of discards and resulted in low fish stocks. In the late 1980s the Norwegian government took drastic action. Mark Kuslansky writes in the book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World that the Norwegian government:

“Severely restricted the[ir] fishery, putting many fishermen, fish-plant workers and boat builders out of business and drastically reducing the size of its fleet. The northern Finnmark region had an unprecedented 23 percent unemployment rate. But because the government instituted these measures when the stock was still commercially viable, while there were still some large spawners left, the cod population stabilized and started to increase after a few years.”

Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson
Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson

Similarly, Iceland has one of the largest and most profitable fishing industries in the world, utilising many of the same practices as Norway. The nation has considered EU membership in the past, lodging an application to join in 2009 and then withdrawing it in 2015, and losing control of their own fisheries and having to share their fishing quotas with other European nations is seen as a major factor in Iceland continuing to remain outside of the European Union. In an interview with the BBC carried out just before Britain’s own EU referendum in June 2016 Iceland’s then minister for fisheries and agriculture Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson outlined his reasons for Iceland’s reluctance to join the EU:

“I would never join the European Union … There is a life outside it, as we have proven. We have one of the biggest and one of the strongest fisheries in the world that is sustainable without any subsidies from the state. We don’t have to share this decision-making with anyone else. It would be difficult for Icelanders to control their economic and fisheries sector having the obligation to discuss it with 27 or 28 other countries.”

The decisive and sometimes painful measures Iceland and Norway have taken in order to restore their own fish stocks and then fish them sustainably are near-impossible to implement under the Common Fisheries Policy. There are simply too many competing nations and interests, all of which have different aims and demands and reaching the consensus needed to reduce fishing effort and fleet size is unlikely ever to be reached. For this reason many people within the British fishing industry believed that it would be better to be outside of the CFP and out of the EU altogether, allowing the nation to run its own fisheries in a manner similar to Iceland and Norway. For this reason, fishing became a significant issue in the 2016 referendum on Britain leaving the European Union.

UK Referendum on Membership of the European Union and the CFP

Main article: Brexit and Britain’s Fisheries

In 2013 British Prime Minister announced that if the Conservative Party won a majority at the 2015 General Election then an in-out referendum on EU membership would be held by the end of 2017. With the Conservatives winning a clear majority in that election it was eventually announced that the EU referendum would be held on 23rd June 2016.

David Cameron resignation
British Prime Minister David Cameron announcing his resignation outside of 10 Downing Street on the morning of 24th June 2016 following the result of the EU referendum.

The result of the referendum was confirmed on the morning of the 24th June 2016 with 52% voting in favour of leaving meaning the United Kingdom would begin the process of leaving the European Union. After a number of delays and two further general elections, the UK finally left the EU on the 31st March 2020. As a non-EU member Britain now had an opportunity to leave the Common Fisheries Policy and run its own fisheries. For much more detail on this please read our article on Brexit and Britain’s Fisheries by clicking here.