Common Fisheries Policy has not 'devastated' North-East fishing industry 6

Common Fisheries Policy has not ‘devastated’ North-East fishing industry

During the EU referendum campaign, one of the central issues with relevance to Scotland was the effect of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which regulates the number of fish which can be caught in our seas.

After the vote to leave the EU, the UK has taken the first steps in “taking back control” of its waters by withdrawing from another agreement which allows other countries to fish in British waters.

Ferret Fact Service | Scotlands impartial fact check project

New environment secretary Michael Gove has blamed the CFP for the alleged destruction of Scotland’s fishing industry.

Ferret Fact Service took a look at this claim and found it to be Mostly False.


There has been much criticism of the CFP among those in and outwith the industry in Scotland.

The CFP is a set of EU regulations which aim to avoid the overfishing of stocks and to ensure the profitability and sustainability of fishing industries by striking a balance between fish reproduction and how much fish is caught.

It is is based on a principle of equal access, meaning EU-registered vessels can access almost any part of EU waters.

Fisheries policy is an “exclusive competence” of the EU, which means that member states are not allowed to make their own laws on the subject. They are, however, allowed to make recommendations on various aspects of fisheries conservation (this is known as “regionalisation”).

The most controversial parts of the CFP is the quotas system governing how much fish each member state can catch in a particular zone.

The total allowable catch is the total amount of fish allowed to be caught from a stock over time. This is based on research which measures sustainable fishing. It was first applied in 1983.

The quota for each EU member is primarily based on how the amount of fishing they did in the area prior to the adoption of CFP.

There is evidence to suggest that Scotland’s fishing industry has shrunk since the 1970s.

Figures show in 2015 4,823 fishermen were employed on Scottish registered vessels. Since 1970, employment on Scotland’s fishing vessels has decreased 49 per cent. Those employed onboard now makes up around 0.2 per cent of Scotland’s workforce.

The number of vessels on Scotland’s east coast, where Mr Gove focused his claim, has also seen a significant drop. In 1970, when the CFP started, the east region had over 1,400 active fishing vessels while current figures show just 769. Although certain larger ports such as Peterhead have seen fairly consistent vessel numbers, there has been an overall reduction.

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The percentage of fish caught in Scottish waters by EU vessels is a particular point of contention for those opposed to the CFP.

Often referenced in this argument is the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is a “sea area defined in International Law that extends up to 200 nautical miles (371 km) from the coast”.

Within this area, a country is entitled to manage and control stocks of fish and shellfish. However, the CFP requires countries to cede control over the EEZ to the EU, although the area has never been fished exclusively by Scottish vessels.

The Scottish part of the UK’s EEZ covers around 467,000 km². Non-UK EU fishing boats caught more than half of the fish and shellfish landed from the Scottish part of the UK EEZ in the North Sea (54% by weight), according to a recent report.

Other interpretations of the impact of CFP have also been put forward. While fishing makes up a smaller part of Scotland’s economy and workforce than it once did, on some measures, profits and landed weight in the North Sea fishing area are actually increasing.

According to the Scottish government, the total value of fish landed by Scottish vessels in 2016 was £563 million, an increase of 29 per cent compared with 2015. The quantity of fish landed increased three per cent to 453,300 tonnes.

Furthermore, changes in fishing practices driven by technological advances and several rounds of fleet decommissioning (government scheme to reduce the number of vessels) has also played a part in the reduction of those employed in onboard.

It has been argued that the small scale fishing industry, which has arguably been hardest hit by the decline, has suffered due to a lack of protection from national government rather than from the CFP.

The sustainability focus of the CFP has also played a part in the recovery of fish stocks in the North Sea, most notably cod, which suffered a near collapse in numbers at the start of the 2000s.

Defenders of the CFP point out it also provides funding for fishing communities. The UK has been allocated €243.1 million in fisheries funding until 2020, with Peterhead Port Authority recently awarded a £5m grant for redevelopment.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly False

The claim that the Common Fisheries Policy has “devastated” the North-East fishing industry has some basis in narrow historical data relating to the size of the industry. While there has been a marked decrease in the number of boats and those employed on them, we must take into account broader changes such profitability, technological change and environmental factors. There is evidence to suggest the CFP has helped to support the sustainability of the Scottish fishing sector.

This claim is Mostly False

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Any questions or want to get involved? Email us at or join our community forum.

Michael Gove and the Conservatives did not respond to a Ferret Fact Service request for evidence.

Photo thanks to Stephen McKay, CC BY-SA 2.0

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