Fish quota allocations out of date

In the European Union, the share of the catch – or fish quotas – as they are better known, are based on where – and how much – fishermen were catching almost 50 years ago, back in the 1970s. However, many fish populations have since moved, due to warming oceans and the recovery from exploitation, and now new research led by the University of Aberdeen has determined just how far out of kilter fish quotas are, relative to fish distributions.

In the North Sea, for example, the UK is allocated less than 1% of the total hake catch, yet more than 28% of the population are in UK waters.

Professor Paul Fernandes, a fisheries scientist at University of Aberdeen’s School of Biological Sciences, who led the study said:  “It is no wonder that the UK fleet has such a massive discard problem in the North Sea.  When the quota shares were set up in the 1970’s, there was hardly any hake in the northern North Sea, now there are huge quantities of hake and the fishermen have virtually no quota there.  The population of hake increased five-fold in the last decade, and much of it is now in the North Sea.”

Similar, although less severe, discrepancies exist between UK quotas and current population distributions for stocks of cod, haddock, whiting, saithe (or coley), plaice and herring in the North Sea; and for stocks of cod, whiting, saithe, hake and monkfish on the west of Scotland.  The only stocks for which the UK gets more than its fair share of quota are monkfish in the North Sea, and Rockall haddock.

Professor Fernandes proposes a solution: “Just as we use scientific evidence to set total catches, we should use existing, readily available scientific evidence of fish distributions, to set quota shares.  The current system is simply at odds with the policy to land all catches (aka the discard ban).”

The study, published in the journal Conservation Letters, advocates for a system where quota shares are allocated based on zonal attachment, where instead of using 50-year-old catches the actual distributions of fish in national waters are used.  In the article, Professor Fernandes proposes a new formulation for zonal attachment, which considers both adults and juveniles, and accounts for fish moving between areas.

He adds: “This has wider implications for the management of fish stocks.  It could go towards solving the mackerel wars, for example, by applying some sensible rules to allocating quota in a migrating stock like mackerel.

“I never thought that the European Union would reconsider quota allocations, in spite of the overwhelming evidence of changing fish patterns, because it’s very contentious.  However, with the UK becoming an independent coastal state, there is an opportunity in negotiation with the EU to do something more sensible.  It should also go towards solving problems like discarding.”

The article is open access and available at

Notes for Editors

Notes for Editors

Photo by Thomas Millot on Unsplash

PublishedThursday January 30th, 2020