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Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Fishing - the UK as an "independent coastal state".

Through the Gaps posted a brief overview of where the UK stands with regard to Michael Gove, the PM and others' emotive phrases, "take back control" and "sovereign waters" - a kind of Brexit-speak. (Brexit-speak derives from 'newspeak' first coined by George Orwell in his dystopian novel, 1984

In this more detailed and factual post, Richard Barnes, Professor of Law at Hull University with a special interest in International Law and the sea gives his take on the nitty-gritty of the legalese involved. 

It is often said Brexit allows the UK to be an independent coastal State. This is not a term of art, so what does it mean? History and international law show this to be more than mere independence. Independence is always conditioned by international law. 

Some thoughts on this. The UK is an independent State. The UK enjoys those rights and duties attributed to it as such by international law. These ebb and flow according to the tide of international law. This includes maritime rights and duties.

Quick history: The UK only established an 12nm exclusive fishing zone (EFZ) in 1964 under the Fishery Limits Act, following the London Convention '64. Beyond was high seas, subject to freedom to fish. This suited UK fishing interests. The UK generally objected to wider EFZs.



The extension of exclusive fishing under international law occurred around the same time the UK sought membership of the EC.

See http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/RP96-6/RP96-6.pdf 



During the 1970s, international law evolved to allow a 200nm EFZ or EEZ. The UK began to go with the flow: Exclusive fishing around UK was extended to 200nm in 1977, following the adoption of the Fishery Limits Act 1976. But, this extension was prompted by The Hague Resolution 1976, whereby all EC Member States agreed to extend Atlantic/North Sea EFZs to 200nm.

Thus UK's extended exclusive fishing limits were closely tied to wider developments in international and European law and policy. Presently, the right to claim an EEZ vests in States. as per #UNCLOS The UK, not the EU, enjoys this right. Yet, whilst the UK remains in the EU, it has through international agreement (EU treaties) authorised the EU to exercise exclusive competence over fisheries. Presently, the right to claim an EEZ vests in States. as per #UNCLOS The UK, not the EU, enjoys this right. Yet, whilst the UK remains in the EU, it has through international agreement (EU treaties) authorised the EU to exercise exclusive competence over fisheries.


As an EU Member State, the UK retains some ability to shape fisheries policy. through the CFP. This has been part of cooperative process. This has been influenced by political considerations. Not always successfully. Yet these political considerations remain.


Once the UK leaves the EU, and any transitional arrangement ends, then exclusive rights to regulate fisheries returns to the UK. Yet, this is subject to limits required by international law. What are these limits? Most obviously these include the Withdrawal Agreement and UNCLOS.

Under UNCLOS, rights and duties in EEZ are part of a careful balance. The rights include managing all fishing activities in the EEZ. The duties include conservation and cooperating with other States when the circumstances require this. This means interdependence.

To the extent fisheries are wholly and naturally exclusive to the EEZ, then management can sometimes be done unilaterally. However, even here a number of situations will require cooperation as appropriate with neighbouring or regional States: eg UNCLOS Article 62:


It is also appropriate when stocks are transboundary, when there is interdependence of shared stocks located in different States waters, and when there are international minimum standards. Independence and  interdependence.

This may entail agreeing common standards between States to ensure proper conservation of stocks. Indeed most experts agree failure to do so will be detrimental to fish stocks. Independence and interdependence

Nothing in UNCLOS requires / prohibits foreign fleets access to fisheries. It is a mainly a political decision. Here a wider range of factors come into play. These include payments, deals related to market access, and other quid pro quo.. Again, independence and interdependence


Brexit means the location of authority to manage fisheries in UK waters will rest with the UK. However, the exercise of this authority still entails cooperation. History shows that cooperation is rarely isolated from other political concerns.

In short, being an independent coastal State does mean independence, but it also means interdependence.