Menu Close

Fact Check: is 80% of UK fish given away to the rest of Europe?

Nigel Farage raised fishing quotas on the campaign trawl in Grismby. Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

As a result of membership of the Common Fisheries Policy, we are now allowed to catch less than 20% of the fish that swim in British waters. The other 80% we have given away to the rest of Europe.

Nigel Farage, UKIP leader, on the campaign trail

When fact checking this statement, it is first of all worth pointing out that if the UK was allowed to catch 20% of the fish that swim in British waters and the EU took the rest, then there would be no fish left in the sea.

In attempting to check the facts behind this assertion, one must assume, therefore, that Nigel Farage is referring to the allocations of fishing quotas which are determined by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

In 2015, the CFP allocated the United Kingdom a total of 612,612 tonnes of quota from more than 100 different fish and shellfish stocks. The total EU quota for these stocks was 2,069,202 tonnes, so the UK was allocated 30% of these fish (and shellfish) quotas.

These figures include various fish which live beyond the boundaries of UK waters, such as Arctic cod and west of Ireland sole. If one considers the 73 different fish stocks which live in UK waters, the total EU quota was 1,920,915 tonnes, of which 585,211 tonnes was allocated to the UK (which also happens to be 30%). Individual quota allocations differ according to stock, as figure one below shows. For example, the UK gets 84% of the North Sea haddock quota, 81% of North Sea monkfish quota and 98% of west of Scotland prawn quota; but only 4% of North Sea sprat quota, 18% of northern hake and 28% of North Sea plaice.

Figure 1. 2015 quota allocations for 73 stocks which live in UK waters, grouped by region (% in brackets refers to the proportion of total quota the UK received in each region). The numbers on each bar refer to the percentage of EU quota allocated to the UK (note West of Scotland Mackerel is off the scale, as EU quota was over 420,000 tonnes).

Although UK waters are extensive, as the map below shows, the fish stocks which live in our waters are by no means confined to them. Some, like mackerel, make extensive migrations and only pass through our waters for a short period. Others are more sedentary, like prawns which stay close to their burrows in muddy habitats.

Figure 2. Map of the British Isles showing UK waters. The UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is in red, EU member states’ EEZ in blue and other EEZs in green. The five main regions referred to in Figure 1 are labelled in white.

Many species live in different places either at different times of the year or in different phases of their life cycle. In the case of North Sea herring for example, most of the juveniles live in the south east corner around the German bight, whereas the adults tend to congregate around the Shetland Isles prior to spawning at various sites along the British coast. North Sea cod are found throughout the North Sea but prefer spawning along the border between UK and Norwegian waters.

So despite the UK having quite extensive waters, fish stocks do not respect political boundaries, and many are mobile at some stage in their life: these fish are exclusive to neither the UK, the EU, nor the bordering Scandinavian states, but are a shared resource. It would be a major undertaking to establish exactly which proportions of each fish stock would occupy any national waters. These are also likely to change throughout the year, and from year to year. The CFP was designed to manage the mobile fishing fleets that pursue these common, mobile resources.

Although the majority of fish stocks around the UK are managed under the CFP, some important stocks, mainly local shellfish species such as crabs, lobsters and scallops, are also managed under national jurisdictions and bilateral agreements, for example between the EU and states such as Norway and Iceland.

The status of all stocks is determined by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), the recognised authority that provides scientific advice to managers. This advice is updated annually and, where possible, includes measures of stock status such as the total biomass of adults and the rate of exploitation the stock has been subjected to by the fishery.

Although the CFP is much derided, various reforms have actually resulted in improvements in the status of many fish stocks in the last decade or so: exploitation rates are down, and in most cases, to levels which are sustainable. The ICES advice also includes recommendations for total allowable catches (TACs) for each stock. Each TAC is then considered by the EU and divided into the quotas which are allocated among the member states according to fixed percentages, under allocation keys known as “relative stability”, which are based on historic fishing patterns.


In 2015, the UK was allocated 30% of the EU quota for fishing ground stocks which occur in UK waters. The area of UK waters relative to other member states is certainly high, but the exact proportions depend on the region and which components of member state waters should be considered.

If Farage’s point is that most of the quota for fish stocks that live in UK waters are fished by other member states, then he is correct; but the figure is not 80%, more like 70%. However, these are not “our” fish, the fish that live in UK waters are no more British than they are German, Dutch, Belgian, Irish or Norwegian: they are in fact European.


This is a thorough and well-illustrated response which uses the most reliable and up-to-date information available. By demonstrating that the majority of fish in our waters are in fact European rather than British it highlights a key point – even if Britain left the EU we would still need to negotiate quotas which took this into account. There is no guarantee this would ensure any more of the catch.

It’s also interesting to look at these figures in terms of value rather than just landings. Three of the top five most valuable UK fisheries are for shellfish: prawns, scallops and crabs. For these more sedentary species we already have almost complete control. Although some fish, such as haddock are mainly eaten in the UK, a lot of shellfish from British waters is exported to EU countries. The vast majority of our scallop catch – the UK’s third most valuable fishery – goes to France and Belgium. Likewise Spain and Portugal take a lot of our crabs and prawns. Let’s concentrate on looking after what we are responsible for, more wisely.

The Conversation is fact checking political statements in the lead-up to the May UK general election. Statements are checked by an academic with expertise in the area. A second academic expert reviews an anonymous copy of the article.

Click here to request a check. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible. You can also email

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 170,800 academics and researchers from 4,735 institutions.

Register now