Denmark and Sweden press Brussels to act against UK in fishing dispute 

Feb 22, 2024 4:06 am | News

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Denmark and Sweden are leading demands for Brussels to take action against the UK in a fresh post-Brexit fishing dispute.

London has announced a ban on catching sand eels on Dogger Bank in the North Sea for environmental reasons — sparking outrage among Danish and Swedish fishers who scoop them up for use as pig feed and in producing fish oil.

Other coastal states have also backed Copenhagen’s demand for the EU to stand up to London, people briefed on the matter said on Wednesday after a meeting of foreign ministers the previous day.

Danish foreign minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen told his EU counterparts at the session that they had to “take a common stand to avoid a de facto erosion of fishing rights”.

“There is the fear of a slippery slope where EU fishing rights will deteriorate over time despite what was agreed with the UK,” an EU diplomat said on Wednesday, referring to the post-Brexit EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

The closure, announced in January and set to take effect from late next month, would cost Danish fishers €18mn annually, Rasmussen said, and also hit the processing industry.

He wants the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to play hardball over fishing quotas and hasten a legal analysis of whether London has breached the terms of the trade deal.

“This is a humiliation for the EU,” said Svend-Erik Andersen, chair of the Danish Fishermen’s Association. “With the Brexit agreement, Danish fishermen paid dearly for access to British waters. Now, the UK is breaking the agreement. It is beyond criticism.”

The UK agreed to give EU fleets continued access to its waters, but is allowed to take conservation measures so long as they do not discriminate against any nation’s fishing fleets.

Although the Dogger Bank ban applies to all boats, Denmark argues it amounts to de facto discrimination because its vessels take 99 per cent of the sand eels catch.

If there is found to be a breach, the EU could take action, including ultimately putting tariffs on UK exports, but it would require a majority of the 27 member states to agree.

“There is a lot of geopolitics involved and not many want a fight with the UK right now,” said one EU diplomat.

London’s decision to curb fishing on Dogger Bank was welcomed by marine conservation groups when it was proposed in February 2021 as part of post-Brexit plans to create a “blue belt” around the UK.

Dogger Bank — a 17,600 sq km area that straddles the territorial waters of the UK, Netherlands, Denmark and Germany — was singled out as one of four special areas of conservation that required protection.

The UK government said it was taking the decision to protect sand eels, which are an important food source for birds such as kittiwakes and puffins, as well as for porpoises.

A joint report by four NGOs — the Blue Marine Foundation, ClientEarth, the Marine Conservation Society and the WWF — said decades of industrial bottom-trawling were the “probable cause” of a decline in fish stocks on Dogger Bank.

Andrew Clayton, director for ecosystem conservation and fisheries for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the decision was based on scientific advice that the British government received from Natural England, a government agency.

“We support the closure of the Dogger Bank to sand eel fishing. This is a good step towards ecosystem-based management that takes into account the impact of fishing on other species like sea birds,” he added.

Charles Clover, executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation, said he applauded the UK’s decision. “If we want the seabirds of the North Sea to reach ‘good’ conservation status — which they are currently failing to do — then a ban on fishing for sand eels is a good idea,” he said.

The UK government said the closure was fully compliant with obligations under the TCA and applied equally to UK and non-UK vessels.

“This is a necessary step to safeguard vulnerable seabird populations . . . and builds on domestic measures already in place,” a spokesperson said. “The UK has not allocated any quota to fish sand eel to UK vessels in three years.”

The commission has been approached for comment.

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