Why devolution matters to fisheries policy

Last week the government released its fisheries white paper. While most of the fisheries and Brexit debate centres on quotas and access to waters, there is also an important devolution dimension. Brexit already has profound consequences for the UK’s devolution settlement and fisheries policy is one example of this. So, in addition to communicating its overall vision for post-Brexit fisheries policy, the white paper was also an opportunity for the government to set out how it would see that policy working in the devolved UK.  Christopher Huggins of the University of the West of Scotland examines the detail.   

Why does devolution matter for fisheries?

Devolution matters to fisheries for two reasons.

The first is a question of formal competences and powers. Fisheries is a devolved policy area, and the devolved administrations have developed extensive experience and capacity in implementing fisheries management policies. But this neat division of competences doesn’t reflect the complex reality fisheries policy operates in.

The UK has international obligations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, will need to negotiate with other coastal states on the management of shared fish stocks and engage in a number of international organisations. But matters of international engagement are reserved by the UK government. Exports are vital to the UK fishing industry, and most of the UK’s catch is exported. But again international trade is a reserved UK government competence. These overlaps raises the scope for tension between the UK and devolved governments.

The second reason is the nature of the fishing industry and how it varies across the UK’s four nations. In terms of fleet capacity, tonnage of fish landed and value of fish landed, most of the UK’s fishing activity takes place in Scotland. But there are also crucial differences in the fishing industry across the UK. In Northern Ireland and Scotland pelagic and demersal fisheries make up the majority of landings, whereas in England and Wales it is shellfish that dominates. England has more fishing vessels than in Scotland, but Scottish vessels are on average much larger.

In this way a ‘one size fits all’ approach to fisheries doesn’t suit the UK. Devolution therefore allows different parts of the UK to adapt their approach to fisheries policy to suit local need. But this also risks divergence to the point where the UK could operate four separate, and potentially conflicting, fisheries policies. This is currently kept in check by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, which effectively acts as a common point of reference and places constraints on the devolved administrations’ ability to diverge.

Common frameworks

To address this risk of post-Brexit policy divergence, the idea of a common UK-wide framework for fisheries has been proposed.

This idea isn’t new. The UK’s fisheries administrations already cooperate with each other and have agreed a Fisheries Concordat which sets out broad principles in areas such as quota allocation and vessel licensing (although a revised version of the concordat has already been subject to delay).

But while the need for a common framework is broadly agreed, there are big debates about the underlying process in developing it. The UK government’s approach to handling intergovernmental relations as it undertakes the process of Brexit, and particularly its initial approach to Clause 11 in the EU Withdrawal Bill, have been contentious and led to claims of a Westminster power grab.

A missed opportunity?

Given the importance of devolution to fisheries, there are several important questions which need addressing. What input will the devolved administrations have into the development of a common framework – through consultation or consent? What key principles in fisheries management will apply UK wide, and which areas will be left to the devolved administrations?

There was much expectation that the fisheries white paper would address some of these. However, in many respects the white paper is a missed opportunity and highlights a significant amount of work left to do in developing intergovernmental relations in fisheries policy.

The white paper reiterates the need for a common framework. It also says that the devolved administrations will get representation when the UK government is negotiating fisheries matters in international fora, although where agreement cannot be reached between the UK and devolved administrations, the UK government will get the final say. Beyond this, however, the white paper offers little detail on how devolution in fisheries policy will work in practice.

Because of this, it is not clear in some places at what level the various provisions refer to (England or UK-wide), and it is obvious that there is significant work left to do in developing a common framework. As the white paper itself puts it: “The composition and scope of the framework has not yet been agreed and work continues with the Devolved Administrations”.

Among the devolved administrations the white paper has been criticised. The Scottish government has been particularly critical, with Fergus Ewing (Scotland’s Fisheries Secretary) lamenting they have had no meaningful engagement from the UK government in the development of the white paper, and were only provided with a copy of it a few days before its publication. 

If post-Brexit fisheries policy is to be successful then it will need ongoing cooperation between the devolved and UK governments. The fisheries white paper was an opportunity to set out how this might work in practice. But a continued lack of clarity and an apparent lack of engagement with the devolved administrations highlights the amount of work left to do.


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