Cod Wars

German fishermen headed for choppy waters as Brexit looms

German fisher in Baltic Sea off Mecklenburg-Western Pomeranian coast
We love nice fishes, my precious. Source: DPA/Christian Charisius.

Brexit poses a threat to Germany’s €2.5 billion ($2.9 billion) fishing industry and could deal a damaging blow to the country’s poorer coastal regions of the Baltic and North Sea.

When Britain leaves the European Union, its coastal waters could become out of bounds to EU fishing fleets — unless Brussels and London secure a deal. “It would take away 50 percent of our fishing opportunities,” said Kai-Arne Schmidt, managing director of the Kutterfisch fleet, a group of 10 fishing vessels based in the North Sea port of Cuxhaven.

The fleet has rights to fish in the waters of Norway, Britain, the Faroe Islands and of EU member states with North and Baltic coastlines.

Double whammy

The EU has for decades controlled fishing rights and quotas tightly. Year after year, European leaders hammer them out in meetings that often drag deep into the night. Emotions can run high — in what were called the Cod Wars of the 1970s, Iceland’s navy attacked West German and British trawlers in a confrontation over fishing rights in the North Atlantic.

Brexit could also deprive EU vessels of fishing rights in Norwegian waters, which would be even worse than losing access to British territory. That’s because Norway, which is not an EU member, allows EU fleets to fish cod in its waters in exchange for the rights to fish blue whiting and Atlantic mackerel that are available off Britain’s coasts.

However, after the UK exits the bloc in March next year, most mackerel and blue whiting will remain in British waters. This means that the rest of the EU would have nothing to offer Norway in exchange for cod rights. And so Norway may ban German fishing boats from its territorial waters.

On the plus side, the industry has a powerful ally in Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose northeastern constituency is home to Baltic fishing crews and fish-processing factories. She takes a keen interest in the industry’s fate and has been known to ask the agriculture minister, Julia Klöckner, detailed questions about fishing in cabinet meetings.

The cod is gone

But Brexit isn’t the only problem. Climate change is driving cod ever further north to find cooler waters. One of the Kutterfisch captains, 58-year old Fritz Flint, has been going to sea since he was 15 and commands a 40-meter trawler with a crew of six. He remembers cod being plentiful in the German Bight, virtually on his doorstep.

Nowadays, though, he is netting fish you would expect to catch in the Mediterranean, like squid and European bass. The cod is gone. “And it’s not coming back,” said Captain Flint. “The water of the German Bight is now too warm.”

The newcomers from warmer waters can’t compensate for this loss. The same is true in the Baltic, where herring supplies are falling and anchovies and red mullet can’t make up for the losses.



“The German fishing industry is among the losers of global warming,” said Christopher Zimmermann, director of the Thünen Institute of Baltic Sea Fisheries.

For now, Kutterfisch can follow the cod northwards, to the Skagerrak strait between Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and all the way to the Faroe Islands, halfway between Scotland and Iceland. The fleet has just invested €17 million in two new vessels equipped with measuring systems to track global warming and cameras to prove that its trawlers aren’t overfishing. Every seven days Captain Flint delivers his catches — around 40 to 60 tons — in the Danish harbor of Hanstholm before heading out again.

But if Brexit fails to produce a deal on fishing rights, the elusive cod will escape his nets for good.

This article was published in WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To reach the authors:

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