Fishing was one of the final sticking points in the post-Brexit trade talks. While fishing is a tiny part of the economy on both sides of the Channel, it carries big political weight.
Regaining control over UK waters was a big part of the Leave campaign in 2016 and fishing is an important issue in several EU member states, including France.
We don’t have all the details yet as the deal itself hasn’t been published.
But both Boris Johnson and the Ursula von der Leyen – the president of the European Commission – spoke about what had been agreed.
25% of EU boats’ fishing rights in UK waters will be transferred to the UK fishing fleet, over a period of five-and-a-half years. The EU wanted a longer ‘transition period’, the UK wanted a shorter one – it looks like they’ve met somewhere in the middle.
According to the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, which was briefed on the matter by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, EU fishing quota in UK waters will be reduced by 15% in the first year and 2.5 percentage points each year after.
By June 2026, it’s estimated that UK boats will have access to an extra £145m of fishing quota every year. In 2019, British vessels caught 502,000 tonnes of fish, worth around £850m, inside UK waters.
Boris Johnson is promising fishing communities “a big £100m programme to modernise their fleets and the fish processing industry” to help them manage this extra fish.
After the transition ends, the UK will have the right to withdraw EU boats’ access to UK waters.
But Mrs von der Leyen said the EU will have “strong tools to incentivise” continued access for the EU fleet to UK waters. This might involve using tariffs (or taxes on UK goods entering the EU).
As the text of the deal is yet to be published, it’s still unclear how the new quota will be allocated to British fishermen, exactly what access UK boats will have to EU waters and what measures have been agreed to preserve fish stocks and marine life.
As part of its membership of the EU, the UK was subject to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
The CFP, which was signed in 1970, means every fishing fleet from EU member states has equal access to European waters.
Ordinarily, each country would control access to their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which stretches up to 200 nautical miles from the coast, or to a maritime halfway point between neighbouring countries.
In the EU, fishing rights are negotiated annually by ministers from each member state, who gather for marathon talks every December to haggle over the volume of fish that can be caught from each species.
National quotas are then divided up using historical data going back to the 1970s, when the UK fishing industry says it got a bad deal.
At present, the UK fishing fleet has the right to catch just under half of the annual fishing quota in UK waters. The EU-27 fleet has access to about a third of the annual catch and the remainder is in the hands of boats from Norway and the Faroe Islands.
Danish, Dutch and French fishing vessels are particularly dependent on fish caught in UK waters – each of them catch more than 100,000 tonnes of the UK’s fish every year.
UK vessels caught under 100,000 tonnes of fish, worth roughly £106m, from EU waters in 2019.
The issue is complicated by the fact that parts of the British quota have been sold off by British skippers to boats owned by EU companies.
In England, for example, more than half the quota is under foreign ownership. That amounts to £160m or 130,000 tonnes a year, according to BBC research.
UK fishermen also sell a large proportion of their catch to the EU.
In 2019, the UK fishing industry exported more than 333,000 tonnes of fish to the EU. That accounts for nearly half of the total catch of the UK fishing fleet and roughly three quarters of total fish exports from the UK.
Some parts of the industry – such as shellfish – are totally dependent on such exports.
But it’s worth remembering that fishing is only a tiny fraction of the overall economy both in the UK (about 0.02% in 2019) and in the EU (some landlocked countries have no fishing fleets at all).
According to the Office for National Statistics, fishing was worth £437m to the UK economy in 2019. By comparison, the financial services industry was worth £126bn.
In many coastal communities though, fishing is a major source of employment – responsible for thousands of jobs.
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