Brexit could be a 'once-in-a-lifetime opportunity' to increase sustainable fishing in British waters.
EU ministers responsible for fisheries decided on catch quotas for 2018 on Wednesday (13 December) - after their traditional annual all-night haggling in Brussels.
They reached a deal at 7:41am.
"After a long negotiation, I am happy to say that we have reached an agreement on fishing opportunities for 2018 in the Atlantic and the North Sea," said commissioner for environment Karmenu Vella.
He noted that 53 stocks were now in line with what scientists say are sustainable levels, up from 44 in 2017, and representing two-thirds of fish. The total number of stocks decided on Wednesday was around 200.
However, environmental groups criticised the quotas deal as too generous for fishermen, saying it will lead to continued overfishing.
"The progress made so far is insufficient to show any chance of meeting the legally-binding obligation to stop overfishing for all EU stocks by 2020," said environmental lobby group Oceana in a press release on Wednesday.
Since 2015, EU states are legally required to tackle overfishing of those species "where possible", and for all species by 2020 at the latest.
However, there has never been a year in which quotas for all fish stocks were in line with scientific advice on sustainable fishing, because ministers also keep short-term economic interests of fishermen in mind.
"Like every year these negotiations are about finding a balance between the sustainability of our fish stocks and the needs of our fishermen," said Estonian minister for fisheries Siim Kiisler at a press conference on Wednesday morning.
While this balancing act is expected to continue until 2020, next year the traditional annual haggling may look different.
In December 2018, the UK will be discussing fish quotas for 2019 - a year in which they will only be a full EU member for 87 days.
How Brexit will affect Europe's fisheries will depend on how the wider negotiations between the UK and the remaining 27 member states pan out.
The EU27 will discuss on Thursday (14 December) whether to move Brexit talks on to the next phase, which will include the UK's new relationship with the EU.
At an event in Brussels ahead of the fish quotas discussion, several NGOs spoke to EUobserver about possible changes for fish stocks and fishermen.
"I was in Britain two weeks ago, met with the minister," said Lasse Gustavsson. "They don't give away any information. It's watertight. You can speculate, of course," he said.
Gustavsson is executive director for the European branch of Oceana.
He told this website that the UK's fishing industry was "probably the most vocal of all British industries who are pro-Brexit".
Oceana is preparing a study on British waters which it expected to present in March next year, but Gustavsson was willing to speculate about possible scenarios in a personal capacity.
"What could possibly happen, and this is pure speculation: EU needs to give her something. … Theresa May needs a victory."
"They'll give her fisheries. She closes British waters, which doubles the fish availability for British fishermen. They'll be very happy," said Gustavsson.
"If I was a fisherman, forget about everything else. I would be pro-Brexit, because it would be a great opportunity for me to make more money," he added.
But he said Brexit was also a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to increase sustainable fishing in British waters.
With more fish available that will no longer be caught by non-UK fishermen, London could afford to simultaneously restrict catching while increasing quota for British fishermen.
The UK government announced last June it will bring forward a Fisheries Bill, "which will both help ensure prosperity for a new generation of fishermen as well as preserve and increase fish stocks".
Andrew Clayton, of another environmental group, the Pew Charities Trust, said that the UK has raised expectations among UK fisheries to increase their quota.
"To stay in the bounds of sustainability, that quota can only come from one place, it can only come from other nations' fleets," Clayton told EUobserver.
In particular fishermen from the Netherlands and Denmark are worried about losing access to UK waters in the North Sea.
"Denmark is the most vulnerable of all. It's a tiny little country, they have almost no water of their own," said Gustavsson, a Swede, noting that negotiations can get nasty.
"I've seen the Danish government preparing documents to claim historical rights because they were fishing in the North Sea in the 1200s," he added.
Although the fishing industry has some vocal lobbyists, fisheries will probably not be most important part of the withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU.
Gustavsson said he could imagine EU states giving up on defending their fishermen in exchange for access to UK market for their car industry.
"If you are Spain, you want to sell Seat [cars] to the British market. It is probably more important in terms of jobs and money [than fisheries]."
Don't forget the science
In the end, though, Bjorn Stockhausen of Seas at Risk said that even outside of the EU, the UK will still have to abide by other international agreements on sustainable fishing.
"The underlying basis for the fisheries management will remain the science. … Scientific advice should not change," he said.
What will change in future of course, is that the EU's fish quotas will be determined by 27 instead of 28 ministers.
Although NGOs say it is challenging to know how ministers behave during the annual haggling over quotas, the UK minister reportedly traditionally leaned towards the side of sustainability.
"There is good evidence that the UK is a good voice for sustainability in that council, so that conversely means that we need other member states to step in and speak up in future," said Clayton.
The UK House of Commons will discuss the impact of Brexit on fisheries with industry experts on Wednesday mornin