EU takes legal action over sand eel fishing ban in British waters

A puffin with a haul of 18 sand eels in its beak
A puffin with a haul of sand eels in its beak. The restriction on catching the fish on Dogger Bank in the North Sea is to protect the area's populations of puffins and kittiwakes - Daniel Lowth/Animal News Agency

The European Union has launched legal action against the UK over a ban on catching sand eels in British waters in a fresh post-Brexit fishing dispute.

In January, Britain announced a ban on catching sand eels on Dogger Bank in the North Sea to protect the area’s populations of puffins and kittiwakes, which eat the fish.

The move caused outrage among Danish and Swedish fishermen, whose governments lobbied Eurocrats to take action against Britain.

Danish officials have argued the measure is discrimination against its fishermen because they take 99 per cent of the sand eels caught, which are used to produce fish oil and pig feed, and it could cost their vessels up to €18 million a year.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s fisheries commissioner, said the ban “impinges on the basic commitments” of the Brexit trade deal, as he warned ministers to drop the embargo.

“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 (TCA),” Mr Sinkevičius said after opening dispute proceedings against Britain.

“Healthy sand eel stocks are not just vital for the delicate balance of our marine ecosystems, but also for the livelihoods of our fishers.”

Mr Sinkevičius says the UK's permanent closure of the sand eel fishery deprives EU vessels from fishing opportunities
Mr Sinkevičius says the UK's permanent closure of the sand eel fishery deprives EU vessels from fishing opportunities - Louiza Vradi/Reuters

Fishing has been a thorny issue between the UK and EU since Brexit, with a number of high-profile disputes in recent years.

In 2021, Boris Johnson, the former prime minister, dispatched two Royal Navy vessels to protect Jersey from a planned blockade by French fishing boats in a row over fishing licences in the Channel island’s waters.

Britain and France were locked in a similar dispute at the same time after dozens of small French fishing boats were refused permits to fish in the Channel because they couldn’t prove their historic activity in the area.

The row over the sand eel ban is the first time the EU has triggered the dispute mechanism in the post-Brexit trade deal.

The Government said its ban is fully compliant with the post-Brexit agreement, which manages cross-channel fishing opportunities, and applied to both EU and UK vessels.

“We took the decision to close our North Sea waters to all sand eel fishing to protect seabirds. This closure is fully compliant with our obligations under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and applies equally to UK and non-UK vessels,” a spokesman said

“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 demand for consultations by the EU is the first step in the dispute settlement mechanism written into the Brexit trade deal.

If a deal isn’t brokered within the 30 days of talks, Brussels could request an independent arbitration panel to judge whether the measures are in line with the deal.

Under the deal, Britain agreed to give EU vessels continued access to its waters, but is allowed to restrict access as part of conservation measures.

If there is deemed to be a breach, the EU could slap punitive tariffs on UK exports to redress the changes of access.

‘Classic example of EU bullying’

Kirsten Carter, head of marine policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: “Ending the industrial fishing of sand eels has thrown a lifeline to the UK’s globally important seabird colonies by securing a vital food source. These populations are at the forefront of the nature and climate emergency and are in significant decline, with their resilience being pushed to the limit.”

Charles Clover, a founder of the Blue Marine Foundation, said: “The European Commission’s decision to take Britain to the disputes panel of the Brexit treaty is a classic example of bullying which the EU dishes out to independent nations who get in its way across the world.

“It has no right to tell the UK what to do under the TCA for taking decisions that improve our marine environment in our own waters especially when these measures apply to all vessels, no matter where they are from.

“The sand eel fishing ban, which applies to English and Scottish waters, can easily be demonstrated to be good for seabirds, which are in decline, and the marine ecosystem generally, as many other species from porpoises to cod depend upon it for food.”