EU Policy. Brussels picks fight over UK ban on sand eel fishing

A fishing boat in Bagenkop, Denmark.
A fishing boat in Bagenkop, Denmark. Copyright Jan M. Olsen/AP
Copyright Jan M. Olsen/AP
By Robert Hodgson
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The European Commission is demanding an explanation from the UK government over a biodiversity protection measure that bans the industrial fishing of sand eels in much of its territorial waters, a move which has upset Denmark, which holds the lion's share of the UK/EU post-Brexit quota.


The European Commission has requested talks with the UK government after London decided to shut down industrial sand eel fishing on environmental grounds, while in Brussels marine conservationists have launched a campaign demanding the EU ban destructive bottom trawling in its own marine protected areas.

The UK government and its devolved Scottish counterpart both announced the end of industrial sand eel fishing at the end of January. Today (16 April) the European Commission said it was triggering the dispute settlement mechanism in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

Unless a satisfactory agreement is reached with 30 days, or more if both parties agree to extend talks, the EU may request an arbitration tribunal adjudicate on the “compatibility of the UK's measures” with provisions in the agreement, which the EU executive said called for an “evidence-based, proportionate and non-discriminatory” approach to marine conservation.

“The UK’s permanent closure of the sand eel fishery deprives EU vessels from fishing opportunities, but also impinges on basic commitments under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement,” EU commissioner for environment, oceans and fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius said.

Under the post-Brexit trade agreement, the EU fishing fleet retains reciprocal access to UK waters. Denmark holds over 90% of the combined EU/UK quota for the diminutive fish of around 160,000 tonnes, with around a third of this allocated to areas in UK waters, mostly Scottish.

“Measures are already in place to protect this important species, including by setting catches below the scientific advised levels and closed areas for protecting seabirds,” Sinkevičius said. The EU executive had been under pressure to act since Denmark and Sweden raised the issue at an EU Council summit of agriculture ministers in late February.

Reacting to the Commission's move, a government spokesperson told Euronews that the UK's ban on sand eel fishing was fully compliant with its obligations under the trade and cooperation agreement, and applied equally to UK and non-UK vessels.

"This was a necessary step to safeguard vulnerable seabird populations, including species like kittiwakes who are at serious risk, and builds on domestic measures already in place. The UK has not allocated any quota to fish sand eel to UK vessels in three years," the spokesperson said.

The same that day the Commission raised its objections to the UK measure to protect species that feed on sand eels, marine protection NGOs launched a campaign demanding an EU ban on the destructive practice of bottom trawling in marine protected areas.

In a report published today, the Marine Conservation Society, Seas At Risk and Oceana analysed data on commercial fishing by Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden and concluded that bottom trawling was still taking place in 90% of offshore EU marine protected areas, despite the 2023 EU Marine Action Plan that calls for phasing the practice out by 2030.

“Our campaign is putting a stop to ‘out of sight, out of mind’ when it comes to what EU governments are allowing in so-called protected waters,” said Tatiana Nuño, senior marine policy officer at Seas at Risk. “While EU politicians waste precious time with pre-election populist posturing, the biodiversity and climate crises rage on unabated.”

Updated on 17 April to add UK government reaction.

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