Michael Gove is announcing that post-Brexit the UK will have a 200 mile fishing limit, within which the fish are British. And it gets to be Britain who decides who can fish them. This is not odd nor unusual – it’s that we don’t currently claim such rights which is. For Gove is just restating standard international law here:
Britain will ‘own’ the sea and the fish in it up to 200 miles from the coast for the first time in decades after the UK leaves the European Union, under plans set out today.
The Government is proposing a new “zonal attachment” way of deciding which country owns the fish and how they should be shared out.
That’s not quite entirely and wholly correct though. The UK has never really – in the fullest sense – had that 200 mile limit.
The concept is the exclusive economic zone – EEZ. Basic history – and I’ll not try to be that detailed here – has seen an extension of how far offshore is part of the country, the bit beyond that being international waters. We’ve all sorts of stories about how 3 miles offshore – perhaps the absolute limit of a well fired cannonball – was definitely part of the country, beyond that, well, a bit maybe and so on. Those limits have extended over time. We still have gradations, territorial waters (say 12 miles out), contiguous (the next 12 miles), EEZ.
It’s changing technology which has led to this expansion. It’s only in the last 50 to 60 years that we might drill for oil more than a few miles offshore for example. So, the territory has been divided up among those littoral states as the desire to economically exploit has meant that some management system is required.
The EEZ is 200 miles out. Within that the resources are for the coastal state to own and exploit as they wish. Obviously, there are plenty of places where two zones clash and so on but there’s a system to deal with all of that.
So, Gove is just claiming the absolutely standard 200 mile EEZ for the newly sovereign Britain.
As to the history, well, varied claims of that 200 miles were made in the past but it’s certainly a second part of the 20th century idea. It really only became entirely accepted international law in 1982 with the UN’s Law of the Sea (maybe even later, when that was ratified). We Brits didn’t accept it for others in the 1970s, that’s what the Cod Wars with Iceland were about. We din’t accept their claim to such.
And when did we sign up to the EU? Quite, and Heath did sign over joint sovereignty of those waters, whatever their limit. Britain has never had a 200 mile EEZ, one over which we’ve had full sovereignty, for the concept is newer than our signing it away to the EU. So, this will be nice, won’t it, actually having these full legal rights instead of just beating everyone up with the Royal Navy.
What matters of course is what we do with it….