Mairi Gougeon MSP, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform, and Islands, has written to Finlay Carson, the Chair of the Rural Affairs and Island Committee, to address the concerns regarding the sand eel fishing ban in Scotland and the challenge raised by the EU. The European Commission said that the ban “significantly restricts” access for EU vessels and “impinges on basic commitments” under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

In the letter, Gougeon points out the legality of the sand eel fishing ban and its compatibility with the UK-EU post-Brexit TCA. The UK government has also dismissed the claim,  a spokesperson stating that the sand eel closure is “fully compliant with our obligations under the EU-UK TCA”. However, environmental groups are concerned that the government could be forced to backtrack on the ban.



The Minister explains that the decision to prohibit the fishing for sand eel in all Scottish waters was based on scientific evidence of the importance of sand eel as a forage species for key species of seabirds. Sand eel form a particularly important component of the North Sea ecosystem and a link between different levels of the marine food chain from plankton up to commercial fish species, seabirds, and marine mammals.

The Minister hopes that the decision will contribute towards the achievement of Good Environmental Status for biodiversity and commercial fish under the UK Marine Strategy.

The letter concludes by pointing out that on 16 April, the EU requested consultations with the UK under the dispute settlement mechanism of the EU-UK TCA regarding the UK’s decision to prohibit sand eel fishing. The aim is to reach a mutually agreeable solution within 30 days, or more if both Parties consent. The Minister stated that Scottish Government officials are working closely with Defra and UK Foreign Offices officials in considering the response.

Environmental Groups express concern

Ariel Brunner, director of BirdLife Europe and Central Asia, said that the EU’s decision to challenge the ban “is simply shameful”, and that the European Commission “is seeking to prevent the UK from taking urgently needed action which the EU itself should have taken long ago”.

Richard Benwell, chief executive of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, said “It is hugely disappointing that the EU, which has so often led on marine protection, has chosen to challenge this positive, dynamic step from the UK Government. We sympathise with economic concerns, but sandeel fishery closures will ultimately boost many fish stocks including Haddock and Whiting, providing a more reliable future for the fishing industry in these waters, and help restore struggling seabird and mammal populations.”

Hugo Tagholm, executive director of Oceana UK, said: “The UK has taken progressive and important action in ending the commercial fishing of sandeels and we urge the government to stand strong in the face of these retrogressive challenges from the EU, which are clearly driven by aggressive tactics from the industrial fisheries lobby.”

Further information and next steps:

The European Union has invoked the TCA resolution procedures with a view to finding a mutually agreeable solution to the dispute.  If consultations do not reach a satisfactory solution within 30 days, or more if agreed by both Parties, the EU may request the establishment of an arbitration tribunal to adjudicate on the compatibility of the UK’s measures with the TCA.

The full text of the EU’s request for consultation with the UK can be found here.

Further coverage can be read here and here. The full text of the letter from Mairi Gougeon MSP to Finlay Carson, the Chair of the Rural Affairs and Island Committee, can be read here.

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