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Control of UK’s Waters

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A major reason for the UK leaving the European Union was so that it could regain control of its sovereignty. Of course, whether a nation can truly exert sovereignty or whether it is a figment of the imagination is up to debate. Nevertheless, let us explore the notion of what the UK may regain in regard to its waters. The UK after all is a signatory to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea. Let us discover what this means and how in turn this may affect the UK’s fishing industry.

UK’s Fishing Industry and leaving the EU

It is interesting to note that fishing was worth £784m to the UK economy in 2018. By comparison, the financial services industry was worth £132bn. So, why focus on fishing? Because many coastal communities within the UK voted to leave the EU and a lot of these communities have relied historically on the fishing industry. Yet, an industry that is economically insignificant has had enormous public resonance. This is partly due to nostalgia and viewing the UK as a seafaring nation, an identity which was deemed under threat. Leaving the EU helps to now reclaim this identity. So, in the eyes of many, it is only right that fishing plays a larger role in this identity. It is because of these ideals that they have political influence that is arguably way out of proportion.

The decline of Britain’s fishing industry is partly laid at the door of the EU and its Common Fisheries Policy. The policy sets out quotas which determine the quantities of a given fish stock a vessel may catch each year. Though the underlying purpose of quotas is to prevent undermining the sustainability of that stock, some feel that in the UK, foreign vessels take a far higher share of the catch in British waters than its own. 

On the flip side, it is argued that the decline of Britain’s fishing industry is due to decades of mismanagement by UK governments, which have seen fishing rights first commodified and then consolidated in the hands of a small and wealthy elite.

Nevertheless, as part of the ongoing negotiations to leave the EU with a deal, Britain is at the “helm” when it comes to extracting EU concessions precisely due to fishing. This is because for the EU, UK waters are bountiful so the EU is under huge pressure from its fishing communities to maintain the status quo. 

Less our attention drift to the UK’s negotiation strategy, let’s focus on what it would mean for the UK to regain access to its waters due to being a signatory to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea. 


Being a signatory means being governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  These laws benefit the costal nations such as the UK as it sets out maritime zones and the rights they possess within their jurisdiction and this includes fishing. Simultaneously, UNCLOS benefits landlocked countries as the high seas are regarded as the “common heritage of mankind” and, therefore, costal nations do not have the sole right to exploit it. 

It is worth briefly touching upon UNCLOS and how its laws stem from important theories that have determined nations right to exert sovereignty. 

Closed Sea and Free Sea

The dispute over who controls the oceans harps back to the days of the Phoenicians and the Greek city states. Disputes, however, were not only settled by naval warfare; theories were proposed to justify the behaviour of nations. Since the early modern era, two opposing theories known as “mare liberum” and “mare clausum” have played large roles that are both now reflected in the UNCLOS treaty.

The first, meaning “closed sea”, is the legal principle that certain bodies of water may be claimed under the exclusive jurisdiction of a particular nation. This principle was used as a pretext by the dominant naval power in order to exert its sovereignty over nations. The “closed sea” principle is now seen in the UNCLOS treaty through the recognition of extensive sovereign rights and jurisdiction given to coastal States. This includes the number of nautical miles that a coastal nation is allowed to solely exploit from the coastline.

The second naturally refers to the opposite – “Freedom of the Seas”. This concept was used by nations that were looking to challenge an existing maritime power and needed a pretext to gain rights to the oceans. 

It is now arguably reflected in the current UNCLOS through classifying the high seas as the “common heritage of mankind”. This means the high seas being incapable of domination and therefore available for use by all nations. “Freedom of the Seas” benefits those nations that otherwise would be at a disadvantage such as countries that don’t have a coastal line or lack the necessary naval facilities. 

In this contemporary age, UNCLOS looks to achieve a balance between exclusive rights and communal sharing. Finding this balance applies to fishing in the oceans and so let’s see what UNCLOS has set out.

The Six Zones

UNCLOS has divided the ocean into six different zones and these subsequently determine exploitation rights:

  1. Internal Waters
  2. Territorial Sea
  3. Contiguous Zones
  4. Exclusive Economic Zone  
  5. Continental Shelf
  6. High Seas & Deep Ocean Floor  

Note: Maritime zones are measured using nautical miles. One nautical mile equals roughly 1.15 miles on land.

For the purposes of this article, let’s focus on two zones: 

  • 2- Territorial Sea and;
  • 4- Exclusive Economic Zone.

For each we will refer back to the UK and its fishing industry. 

2- Territorial Sea – Low Water Mark

In previous centuries, the “closed sea’ principle allowed states to exert territorial sea rights and jurisdiction over a narrow belt of sea adjacent to its coastline – in general this equated to approximately three nautical miles, which is based on the distance a cannonball could be fired from the coast. At present, the vast majority of states have established territorial seas at the 12 nautical mile limit as stipulated by UNCLOS. In this region, the costal state has the sole sovereign right to resource exploitation and fishing. 

No foreign ships are allowed in this region unless they come under the right of innocent passage. This means provided a vessel is not present within the 12 nautical miles for the exploration of resources, transiting arms or weapon or spying, then it’s free to pass. 

UK Fishing under the Territorial Sea – Low Water Mark

Within the 12 nautical mile limits, fish can only be caught by boats belonging to the coastal state or in accordance with a treaty between that state and the country the fishing boat came from. 

The same right applies to the UK; however, successive governments throughout the last 50 years have entered into agreements that allow other nations access to our Territorial Sea Zone. An example is through the Fishery Limits Act 1964 which implemented the European Fisheries Convention. This has permitted five EU Member States (Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands) the right to fish in parts of the 6-12 mile zone off the UK. These countries were regarded as nations whose vessels ‘habitually fished’ between 1953 and 1962, hence being permitted this access. The UK, in turn, received the right to fish in the 6-12-mile zones off parts of Belgium, France, Germany and Ireland. As of present, this right remains via EU law which incorporated the previous European Fisheries Convention. 

Leaving the EU

Now, unless the UK government reaches an agreement with the EU pertaining to the 1964 European Fisheries Convention, the five EU Member States will no longer have the right to fish in the UK’s 6-12 mile zone. 

This means that for the first time in years, the UK will have the right to exert national rights and jurisdictions up to 12 miles off its coast. For many, this is the primary benefit of leaving the EU; regaining sovereignty and the will to decide – of its own accord – what the UK can and cannot do with its own resources and territory. Whether these 12 miles will help uplift a declining industry remains to be seen. 

4-Exclusive Economic Zone  

It is, however, the Exclusive Economic Zone which is the most important zone for coastal nations as it extends 200 nautical miles from the baseline. It allows for example:

  • Exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources found within the water and on the sea floor.
  • These resources include both living resources, such as fish, and non-living resources, such as oil and natural gas.
  • Exclusive rights to engage in offshore energy generation from the waves, currents, and wind within their Exclusive Economic Zone.
  • Article 56 of UNCLOS also allows States to establish and use artificial islands as well as conduct marine scientific research etc. 

This zone also does not give a coastal State the right to prohibit or limit freedom of navigation or overflight, subject to very limited exceptions. 

UK Fishing Under the Exclusive Economic Zone  

Being part of the EU and being a signatory to the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy has meant EU fishing vessels enjoy a right of equal access to all EU waters (therefore, including the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone), other than waters within the 12-mile zone subject to what was discussed (European Fisheries Convention). 

Leaving the EU

It’s worth highlighting that the UK has the fifth largest Exclusive Economic Zone in the world (6,805,586 km).

So, once outside the EU, the UK will be in full control of this Exclusive Economic Zone. As such, it’s a fresh opportunity for the government to rearrange the quotas and who has the right to decide who fishes in UK waters and on what terms.

Negotiations with the EU will again determine what deal is reached between the EU and UK in regards to each other’s Exclusive Economic Zone, especially when it comes to fishing. 


For the EU, the UK’s seas are bountiful because of the species found including scallops, crab and lobsters.These are however delicacies that have not been popular in this country. Contrastingly, cod and haddock – the staples of fish-and-chips shops – are found closer to Norway and Iceland. 

In other words, Britain exports most of what it catches and imports most of what it eats. Either the UK will need to change its appetite, or it will need to import fish from the EU. The latter, however, is only economically viable by being given special access to the Single Market. As mentioned previously, access to the Single Market is of upmost importance as it is far too lucrative to ignore.

In return, the EU may be granted access to fish in the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone and having a say on UK quotas. So, there’s a possibility that the UK’s fishing industry will lose out. The magic disappearance of EU fishing vessel is therefore potentially a fallacy. This will consequently exacerbate many coastal communities declining trust in the political leadership, but it remains to be seen if there is heavy political damage. 

For other sectors, such as mining and shipping, the benefits of regaining our waters maybe more apparent. Let’s save this discussion for another article. 

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