Fisheries in Scotland: Brexit and opportunities for the marine environment

Leaving the European Union has created significant changes to UK fisheries management and presents an opportunity to develop a world-leading and sustainable fishing industry in Scotland. The Trust’s Marine Policy Officer, Bernadette Butfield, outlines the recent changes to fisheries management and what this means for Scotland.

Trawler off Shetland © Chris Gomersall / 2020Vision

The marine environment is in an unhealthy state. In Scotland international targets on marine biodiversity are not being met, and the UK as a whole is failing on 11 out of 15 indicators for achieving Good Environmental Status.

Pressure from fishing is recognised as one of the most widespread drivers of environmental change, both in Scotland’s seas and globally. Current fisheries management measures have contributed to the decline in the health of our seas. Only 54% of Scottish stocks are being sustainably fished.

Damage to marine habitats and wildlife caused by destructive fishing activity compromises the resilience of marine ecosystems to disease and environmental change. This damage also reduces their capacity to provide the essential goods and services, such as food and carbon capture, that both society and the wider environment rely on.

It is therefore essential for the future health of the marine environment, and for the future of the fishing industry, that fisheries are managed in an environmentally sustainable way. Our Fisheries Management Policy sets out how this can be achieved.

The UK Fisheries Act 2020

Since the 1970s, the UK fisheries have been managed by the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – a multinational approach that allowed fishing vessels from any EU country to fish anywhere in European waters.

While fishing is a devolved power in Scotland, the CFP provided an overarching and legally binding framework for the Scottish Government to develop fisheries management from.

On leaving the EU the UK became an independent coastal state outside of the CFP, with new powers to design its own domestic fishing policy (out to 200 nautical miles) which would also apply to foreign vessels in UK waters.

The UK Government subsequently implemented a new fisheries management framework under the UK Fisheries Act 2020.

The Act includes a number of objectives which Scotland, as one of the UK Fisheries Administrations (UKFAs), is committed to supporting and delivering, including the ecosystem objective to minimise and reverse negative impacts of fisheries on marine ecosystems.

While some of the objectives are partially married with the CFP (e.g. the national benefit objective), the UK Government has set out new objectives to tackle climate change, which mark a progressive shift away from the CFP.

Later this year the UKFAs will set out policies for achieving the objectives of the Act in the legally binding Joint Fisheries Statement.

While this new power presents an opportunity for the UK Government to develop a truly world-leading industry, fishing is a highly complex and dynamic topic that seeks to balance issues of an environmental, economic and social nature with international relations.

Kirkwall Harbour © Mike Pennington

The EU-UK Deal

The new deal between the UK and the EU allows fishing vessels from the EU to continue to fish in UK waters, while the UK fleet will receive a greater share of quota from UK waters, which will be phased in from 2021 to 2026.

After the five-year adjustment period, annual negotiations will determine how quota is shared out between the UK and EU.

Opportunities for Scotland

As fisheries remain a devolved power in Scotland, the UK Fisheries Act 2020 provides a framework for the Scottish Government to develop a progressive and world-leading fishing industry. The Scottish Government is responsible for managing the activities of Scottish fishing vessels operating within the ‘Scottish zone’, which accounts for 62% of UK waters.

In 2019, the Scottish Government consulted on the Scottish Sea Fisheries Discussion Paper (see the Trust’s response here) and published the resulting Future Fisheries Management Strategy (FFMS) in December 2020. The strategy provides a series of proposals for sustainable fisheries management in Scotland. For example, the FFMS promisingly recognises the importance of ecosystem-based fisheries management, an approach which places the environment at the heart of decision-making and recognises the impact fishing has on the wider ecosystem.

Unless transformative action is taken to explicitly include marine conservation measures throughout fisheries management, new domestic fisheries power could continue to permit overfishing in UK waters. The recent Dasgupta Review recognised “our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature”, and this rings true for the fishing industry. To ensure sustainable and prosperous fisheries, it is vital that we prioritise valuing long-term ocean health over short-term economic gain.

Creels at St Monans © Simon Swales

What you can expect from us

The Trust will continue to engage with the development of fisheries management in Scotland and we will work to ensure the objectives and policies of Scotland’s Future of Fisheries Management Strategy 2020-2030 are delivered.

Our Fisheries Management Policy sets out a series of recommendations that we consider essential for ensuring Scotland’s fishing industry is truly world-leading, and we will advocate for these to be included in Scotland’s new fisheries management measures.

  1. Adopt an ecosystem-based fisheries management approach that truly places the environment at the core of decision-making and ensures all fishing activity occurs within environmental limits.
  2. Improve data availability to ensure all fisheries management decisions are well informed and based on the most up-to-date scientific evidence.
  3. Modernise the fishing industry through use of digital technology to improve monitoring, compliance and enforcement whilst increasing transparency and accountability in the supply chain.
  4. Manage fish stocks and the wider marine environment in a way that is inclusive of stakeholder views at national and international scales.
  5. Bring fisheries into the wider context of marine environmental management through improved spatial planning of fishing activities.
  6. Ensure adequate resourcing is available to deliver long-term fisheries management and environmental impact mitigation.

Help protect Scotland’s wildlife

Our work to save Scotland’s wildlife is made possible thanks to the generosity of our members and supporters.

Join today from just £3 a month to help protect the species you love.

Join today


Leaving the European Union has created significant changes to UK fisheries management and presents an opportunity to develop a world-leading and sustainable fishing industry in Scotland. The Trust’s Marine Policy …

Stay up to date with the Scottish Wildlife Trust by subscribing to our mailing list Subscribe now

Back to top