The Fishing Industry in Northern Ireland after Brexit

Published 25 November 2020

A big part of Northern Ireland’s economy is based on primary sectors such as agriculture and fishing. The main professional commercial fishing activity in Northern Ireland takes place in Ardglass, Kilkeel and Portavogie harbours where processing factories are placed to deal with the catches and landing of the fish, the packing of the processed fish and its shipping. Other locations in Northern Ireland also play an important role in the sector and contribute to the development of the industry.

These businesses play an important role in the country’s development, providing employment to thousands of people, generating economic wealth in small towns and contributing to the balance between sustainability, ecology and environmental protection. Most fishermen voted to leave the EU due to the opportunity that Brexit would offer to them. Regaining control of the UK’s sovereign waters has been their goal for many years as they were restricted by the quota allocation system established by the EU Common Fisheries Policy and the rights given to other EU vessels, however, breaking with the past is not as simple as it looks, as the UK has to balance its own interest together with its international and diplomatic obligations.

The Fisheries Act 2020 received its Royal Assent on 23 November 2020, being the new “Fishing code” for the industry after decades of being subject to EU rules. This is a promising text that, after scrutiny and amendments by the House of Commons and House of Lords, will allow the UK to control the access to its waters, to develop its own fishing quota (also called Total Allowable Catches or TAC), to protect the environment, to control the UK’s fish stock and to regulate the competitiveness of the industry. Northern Ireland, being the smallest territory of the UK, had always claimed more TAC for its fishermen and had always received the smallest shares within the UK.

Northern Ireland’s fishing sector is not just concern with the increase of their TAC and fishing rights, but also with the challenges of attracting younger people to work in the industry and their training. New immigration rules are also entering into force that needs to consider the specific conditions and requirements of this industry, to provide some flexibility in order to be able to attract talent to Northern Ireland who are interested and can develop a long term career as crew members in Northern Ireland’s fishing fleet or within the fishing industry.

In addition, the close relationship between the fishing industry in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been during the years subject to voisinage agreements, allowing fishermen on both countries to fish within 0 to 6 nautical mile zone along each other’s coast. This relationship between both countries needs further consideration to prevent that, under these agreements and as a back door to Brexit, other EU countries take advantage and register their fishing fleet in the Republic of Ireland to get access to the Territorial Waters attached to Northern Ireland and also benefiting from accessing the EU fishing waters.

During the last few years there has been continuous negotiations between the EU and the UK aiming to achieve a compromise between the right of EU fishing vessels accessing the UK’s waters and the protection of the UK’s fishing industry. These negotiations are currently taking place and it is difficult to predict what the outcome would be, the only certainty we have is that the new Fisheries Act 2020 will allow the UK to self-regulate the sector by distributing the TACs fairly, protect the environment and to promote the economic wellbeing of the industry.

This article is for general guidance only and should not be regarded as a substitute for professional legal advice.

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