Building a New Scotland: Our marine sector in an independent Scotland

This paper sets out the Scottish Government's vision for the marine sector in an independent Scotland.

Our vision for independence and approach to delivery

Key points:

  • Joining the EU would enable Scottish seafood exporters to enjoy free access to the European Single Market. Our seafood businesses, coastal communities and marine science sector would benefit from freedom of movement within the EU
  • As an EU member state, Scotland would be well-placed to make a proactive, positive and constructive contribution to the development of current and future EU law – such as reforms of the Common Fisheries Policy – and would be able to prioritise our interests and negotiate for ourselves at the heart of the EU
  • Inside the EU, Scotland would be able to negotiate an equitable share of EU funding programmes to invest in our seafood industry, our coastal communities and our marine science sector, likely exceeding what the UK is currently providing


Independence would offer Scotland the opportunity to do things differently and achieve more for our marine sector.

By placing responsibility for our long term marine potential in Scotland’s hands, the Scottish marine sector would have more influence. Future Scottish governments would work for all parts of our marine sector and our coastal communities in the round.

At a fundamental level, independence would mean that we would gain the ability to make decisions and choices about the future of our own marine sector and our country as a whole. We could maintain existing approaches where it makes sense to do so and make different choices where that is in Scotland’s national interest.

The benefits of EU membership and the Single Market

The EU is one of the world’s largest importers and consumers of seafood products,[105], [106] with many Scottish seafood products prized for their quality. Between 2016 and 2019, on average three-quarters (77%) of all overseas seafood exports from Scotland went to the EU, worth an average of £703 million per year.[107]

In the case of Scottish salmon – the UK’s biggest food export – 64% (by volume) of exports in 2022 were to the EU (with 12% of total overseas exports achieving the Label Rouge mark in recognition of their superior quality); with France the largest market, and EU member states as three of the top five export markets. [108], [109]

To maximise the economic benefits, it should be as easy as possible for Scottish seafood producers and exporters to trade within that market. That is why the Scottish Government is clear that EU membership is in Scotland’s national interest and that no trade deals or agreements can be reached with the EU that would be as favourable for our marine sector in the round as full EU membership.

Some of the benefits of EU membership could be achieved through other means – such as membership of the Agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA), the bilateral agreements that Switzerland has with the EU or, to a much lesser extent, the trade agreements that the UK, Canada and others have reached with the EU. However, none of these provide the full suite of benefits that Scotland could enjoy inside the EU.

For example, while Norway, an EEA member, is not covered by the CFP, it has nevertheless been required to implement around three quarters of EU law but with little or no involvement in how those laws are made.[110] This includes 99% of environmental and sanitary and phytosanitary regulations, and full harmonisation with veterinary regulations on feed/input products, fish health and fish welfare, by-products and food safety.[111]

Similarly, while the EEA Agreement and other bilateral agreements allow duty free trade in most whitefish products, and reduced tariffs on other products, a range of tariffs apply to other seafood products, usually based on the level of processing involved; such as a 2% tariff on whole, fresh salmon, but a 13% tariff on smoked salmon.[112]

Following the EEA model would not only fail to deliver the full benefit of the Single Market, it would also mean a significant and unacceptable loss of potential influence for Scotland with the EU.

Securing free access to so vital a market for our seafood products is critical to delivering the full growth potential of Scottish seafood; and can also play an important role in enhancing overall European food security. And as other EU members have shown successfully, membership of the EU is not an impediment to increasing trade with the rest of the world.

When the UK was an EU member, our seafood industries traded with overseas markets like the USA and China – our second and third largest overseas markets for salmon exports[113] – and increasing that trade did not come at the expense of the access and benefits enjoyed through EU membership. There is no reason why Scotland could not do likewise after independence. Membership of the EU and trade with others needs does not need to be a binary choice.

Our opportunities to influence in the EU

The benefits of EU membership extend significantly beyond market access. As an independent EU member, Scotland would for the first time be able to negotiate directly for Scottish priorities without them being influenced by, or subject to, wider UK objectives. We would have complete and direct access to EU institutions and votes in the EU Council. Given the relative size and strength of our marine sector, we could expect to wield significant influence in this regard.

Scotland would also gain the right to a European Commissioner, with potential to seek the role of Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. While Commissioners act independently in the interests of the EU, and not their own Member State, such a role would still be an attractive proposition given Scotland’s importance to European marine and fisheries interests. It would build on the experience of member states such as Lithuania, which currently holds the Commissionership, and Malta, which has held the role, or previous equivalents, twice since 2004.

During its presidency of the Council of the European Union – which every EU member state, regardless of size, has the opportunity to hold – Scotland could also choose to make fisheries a priority, similar to the approach of the recent Czech Presidency.[114]

Equally importantly, Scotland could join and influence key groups such as the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF), which has played a key role in formulating science based advice for application in fisheries management, with a bigger and more influential role for Scottish scientists.

That is not to say that Scotland would always promote its own interests in isolation. We would form partnerships and alliances with other like-minded states where beneficial. Scotland has a strong track record in building multi-national partnerships – such as leading UK involvement in the European Marine Biological Resource Centre – European Research Infrastructure Consortium (EMBRC-ERIC) partnership prior to Brexit. That collaborative, mutually-beneficial approach within the EU and other international bodies is one we will seek to re-establish and enhance.

The crucial point, however, is that Scotland would be able, for the first time, to prioritise our own interests and truly champion the Scottish marine sector. Existing member states have successfully done this – for example, Denmark and Sweden working together to secure priority fishing interests relating to herring in the Skagerrak, where they seek access to catch 50% of those opportunities in the North Sea[115] and ensure the EU Commission has this as a priority objective as part of their overall negotiating priorities in the annual UK-EU bilateral.[116] Scotland would be able to do the same, as a full member state.

The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)

Delivering Scottish interests and priorities need not be in conflict with the delivery of overarching EU priorities and mutually beneficial outcomes, including in the case of the CFP.

The CFP is a mechanism and set of rules designed to ensure the long-term environmental, economic and social sustainability of fishing and aquaculture activities in the EU.

The original aims of the CFP included increasing productivity, stabilising markets, providing a source of healthy food and ensuring reasonable prices for consumers. Since its establishment, however, the CFP has undergone significant reform to encompass:

  • management measures to move fishing activity towards maximum sustainable yield levels, regulate methods and locations of fishing activity, and to reduce the risk of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing
  • the EU’s approach to international relations and cooperation in relation to the management of shared fish stocks and other marine interests
  • measures to regulate seafood market standards and competition within the EU and protect consumers and human health
  • financial assistance to help the transition to more sustainable fisheries and support coastal communities to diversify their economies.

Under the CFP, all member states have equal access to waters in the entire EU, although member states can also restrict or limit access in the 0-12 nautical mile area in certain circumstances. Quotas are set annually by the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on the basis of scientific advice and once overall EU quotas are set, member states are given a percentage share based on historical catch data and other factors, known as ‘relative stability’.

As an integral part of the EU law, it is well-established that being an EU member state means implementing the CFP from the point of accession.

The overarching aims of the CFP are goals that the Scottish Government strongly supports and has much to contribute to. The CFP also implements international agreements that an independent Scotland would be bound by, and committed to achieving.

Although some parts of the CFP have been historically challenging for Scottish fishing interests – particularly in relation to ‘relative stability’[117] and in relation to discarding – it could be argued that the CFP has been unfairly blamed for domestic UK policy choices. For example, the significant foreign ownership of English and Welsh quota arises from domestic policy choices around licence transfers and the commodification and sale of such quota[118] by domestic fishers rather than flaws in the CFP. This is in contrast to the predominantly local and family-owned fishing industry in Scotland, arguably showing a difference in the importance attached to fisheries in Scotland that is not replicated elsewhere in the UK.[119]

As a member state, the UK Government could have made different decisions, and prioritised constructive, positive and pragmatic reforms at EU level to better deliver Scottish and UK marine interests in the same way that other member states do,[120], [121] but it did not do so.

In contrast, if Scotland becomes an independent member state, we could use our influence and expertise to proactively and positively support current and future reforms of the CFP led by the European Commission to maximise efficient and effective delivery of CFP outcomes. The Scottish Government is already well respected internationally for our management approach to the marine environment, and could use our experience, expertise and influence to help shape policies and the future direction.

Scotland would continue – as was the case when the UK was an EU member state – to be a champion of regionalisation. This would mean working in partnership with other member states to implement bespoke management measures on a delegated basis, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ model, and in recognition of the different needs of different marine ecosystems.

That may include, for example, directly influencing the shape and nature of multiannual plans, recovery plans and conservation measures in relation to Scottish waters or the stocks or marine features within them.

EU funding

In addition to the influence we could wield, membership of the EU would also enable Scotland to access a significant range of EU funding programmes to benefit our marine sector. Current EU funding programmes include:

  • the €6.108 billion (approximately £5.2 billion) European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF)[122], the replacement for the previous European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) to which the UK had access when it was an EU member state
  • the €95.5 billion (approximately £85.6 billion) Horizon Europe[123] research and innovation fund
  • the €5.43 billion (approximately £4.6 billion) LIFE Programme[124] dedicated to environmental, climate and energy objectives

Scotland’s share of programmes such as EMFAF would be a matter for negotiation following EU accession. What is clear, however, is that Scotland could place greater weight on funding negotiations in this area than the UK did previously.

Under EMFF – the predecessor fund to EMFAF – the UK had €243 million (approximately £207.6 million) for the duration of the programme, of which Scotland received 46% (€107.7 million, or approximately £92 million).[125] Together with associated indirect assistance, this equated to £150 million for Scotland between 2014 and 2020. This, however, represented less than 2% of the available funding, despite Scotland having 13% of EU aquaculture production (including 94% of total EU salmon production),[126] 9% of the sea fisheries landings and the fourth largest EU sea area to manage. Despite having the largest share of the UK nations, Scotland’s funding was, in essence, a large share of a small UK pot.

By way of comparison[127]:

  • France received €588 million (approximately £502 million) in EMFF funding between 2014 and 2020, despite having a smaller core sea area than Scotland[128], [129]
  • Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (whose combined population[130] is slightly larger than Scotland’s[131], but whose combined sea area is less than a sixth of the size of Scotland’s)[132], [133] received €304.2 million (approximately £260 million).

That is a direct consequence of successive UK Governments that chose to prioritise freezes or cuts to the overall EU budget,[134], [135] and deprioritise individual programme negotiations and the pursuit of funding to invest in the Scottish marine sector. That historic pattern of deprioritisation and underinvestment is now being repeated post-Brexit, with only £14 million in marine funding[136] being made available to Scotland by the UK Government for 2021-22 and 2022-23,[137] with much less certainty on funding in subsequent years compared to that offered by the EU.

In contrast, EU member states will enjoy the stability and certainty of a seven year funding programme through EMFAF, enabling long term investment decisions to be made. As can be seen in Table 2 below, they will also be able to access a far higher level of funding than Scotland will receive within the UK.

Table 2 – EMFAF funding for selected EU member states[138]
Member State EMFAF Share 2022 Average Annual EMFAF Funding 2021-27
France €92.66 million (approximately (£79.2 million) €81.02 million (approximately £69.2 million)
Denmark €32.8 million (approximately £28 million) €28.7 million (approximately £24.5 million)
Latvia €22.0 million (approximately £18.8 million) €19.3 million (approximately £16.5 million)

With independence and membership of the EU, Scotland would be able to prioritise our marine interests and push for a truly equitable share of marine funding that reflects our position as one of the key marine players in Europe, as well as influencing the shape and coverage of future funds and any future reforms of state aid rules.

Such funding could be used to deliver vital investment in infrastructure like ports and harbours, important scientific research and monitoring programmes to ensure sustainable fisheries and protect our marine environment, and support for growth and innovation in the seafood sector.

Although Scotland, as a relatively wealthy state, could expect to be a net contributor to the EU budget after accession, it is also important to note that net budgetary contributions do not reflect the overall economic costs and benefits of EU membership – including those set out elsewhere in this paper.

Our participation in EU programmes is also about more than just access to funding. It is an indicator of the type of nation Scotland aspires to be – building bridges and with scientific collaboration across borders being celebrated.[139]


Alongside that programme participation, and with the benefits of freedom of movement restored and control over migration more broadly, Scotland would – for the first time – have the right levers to attract the people we need.

Scotland is a welcoming and inclusive nation and we want to make Scotland as attractive as possible to encourage people to live, work, study, raise their families and build their lives here – helping to ensure thriving coastal and island communities and stronger local economies.[140] And of course we want people to visit to enjoy our beautiful marine and coastal environments, the fantastic marine leisure activities Scotland offers and our world class seafood.

In a marine context, EU membership would allow our seafood businesses to access the labour they need to grow sustainably without discouraging new domestic entrants. Our marine science sector could attract students and academics from an EU-wide pool. Our coastal and island communities could continue to benefit from inward migration and tourism.

And the levers that independence would bring could also be used to make decisions about migration that are in the best interests of businesses and communities in Scotland, and ensure all marine businesses can access labour equitably – especially smaller and inshore fishing vessels who have been disproportionately affected by UK immigration policy.[141], [142]

Given the importance of non-EU labour for the fishing industry, this could include, for instance, reducing the cost and complexity of the immigration system in terms of recruiting non-EU nationals, as well as being able to recognise the value of fishing and seafood processing roles and ensure salary thresholds to obtain visas are proportionate.

We would also seek to ensure our immigration system helps encourage migration to rural, coastal and island communities rather than acting as a barrier to it – using the Rural Visa Pilot proposal previously made by the Scottish Government, and rejected by the UK Government,[143] as a possible basis.

Our wider proposals on migration can be found in the sixth paper in the Building a New Scotland series – Migration to Scotland after independence.[144]

Following accession, our environment would also benefit from the critical role EU institutions play in setting, monitoring and enforcing common environmental standards, driving improvements, and the coordinated approach to trans-boundary environmental challenges and the level playing field this provides across multiple jurisdictions.

That includes the important role that the European Commission and Court of Justice of the European Union play in ensuring accountability and providing access to justice on the fulfilment of environmental and other obligations across member states.

Our pre-EU accession approach

The Scottish Government acknowledges that accession to the EU would not be immediate or automatic after independence and that an application and accession process must be undergone.

Until we are able to join the EU as a full member, and to support that accession process, Scotland will remain firmly committed to respecting and promoting EU values and the principles of EU law – including those of the CFP. There will be broad alignment with the EU wherever possible, having due regard to EU environmental principles to make the accession process as quick and streamlined as possible. The powers of the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) Scotland Act 2021 and other legislative powers will be used to achieve this.

Scotland aspires to be a proactive, positive and constructive contributor to the effective and efficient delivery of EU strategic priorities – we would be able to use the pre-accession period to demonstrate that to the EU and the world. However, we are not simply content to match existing EU standards.

As innovators, this Scottish Government would also seek to drive up standards and encourage a ‘race to the top’ approach, and that will be our approach prior to and after EU accession.

In a marine context, that would mean:

  • using our powers as a coastal state collaboratively and responsibly to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes with other nations, and in recognition of the fact that fisheries and environmental issues do not respect international boundaries
  • delivering bold and ambitious change in our marine sector to meet the needs of current and future generations, and tackle the twin biodiversity and climate crises, coupled with support for a just transition to green jobs of the future where that is needed
  • building on our Future Fisheries Management Strategy,[145] our Future Catching Policy,[146] and other strategic plans to continue to develop progressive, innovative and viable models to deliver and exceed EU standards and outcomes, and avoid ‘one size fits all’ approaches (including continuing to champion vessel tracking and monitoring systems and developing technologies such as Remote Electronic Monitoring to enhance accountability and sustainability)
  • continuing to show leadership on the designation of Marine Protected Areas, with Scotland already exceeding EU and global targets on this, and developing – in partnership with communities – a new pathway to deliver enhanced marine protection commensurate with the scale of the climate and nature crisis we face
  • championing the management of fisheries in a way that protects biological diversity and which ensures that marine ecosystems continue to provide economic, environmental, social and wider benefits based on best available scientific advice
  • taking an effective, proportionate and risk-based approach to marine management, monitoring and enforcement to detect and deter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and uphold the rule of law.

Scotland wants a constructive, positive and mutually beneficial relationship with the EU and the same kind of relationship with the UK. We want to work on a true ‘partnership of equals’ basis, recognising our shared geographic, economic and political interests where appropriate.

The detail of any post-independence negotiations and possible transitional approaches will be determined at a later date. However, the commitment set out here to the people and governments of the UK, Wales and Northern Ireland is to undertake those negotiations in a spirit of friendship, with a view to delivering an equitable settlement and a basis for a strong and mutually beneficial future relationship.

In line with that, key priorities will be to:

  • recognise mutual obligations under international law and other international commitments, including the mutual rights and obligations of independent coastal states
  • seek to agree an equitable division of quota shares, and mutually agreeable access rights, that recognise the complexity and mobility of fish stocks in the North Sea and North East Atlantic and which take account of fishing activity and the geographic distribution of fish stocks
  • aim to minimise barriers to trade to, and the movement of, seafood products across our islands as far as possible, whilst respecting national sovereignty and regulatory independence
  • maintain the Common Travel Area and protect the rights of UK and Irish nationals to live in Scotland and work in our marine and other industries.



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