It was in the autumn of 2021 that a diplomat working at Ireland’s Embassy to the European Union in Brussels spotted something fishy.
What stood out was a stray line in draft documents ahead of a summit about Baltic Sea fishing rights. Denmark seemed to be seeking an allocation of 12,000 tonnes of mackerel in UK and EU waters: a strange detail, as mackerel stocks are not usually part of Baltic talks.
“Denmark were trying to pull a fast one,” said one person close to the talks.
By scrutinising EU fish deals back to the 1970s, Irish officials uncovered a legal basis to challenge the Danish claim, and led Ireland into a year-long dispute with a sometime ally over a quota worth €36 million a year.
The battle comes to a head on Sunday when EU fisheries ministers gather in Brussels for the EU’s annual fish talks.
For Ireland it’s a chance to win back the right for Irish fishers to 6,000 tonnes of mackerel annually, which would reverse at least some of the costly mackerel rights lost to the UK in the final hours of Brexit negotiations on Christmas Eve 2020.
But for Denmark, the Irish campaign is an audacious attempt on its rightful fish stocks that would strip livelihoods from people who have relied upon mackerel fishing quotas for generations.
They have warned of the dangers of EU countries turning on each other, amid the destabilisation of decades-old fishing arrangements caused by Brexit’s removal of a vast area of sea once commonly managed by the bloc.
“If we continue this way, nobody can be safe with their quotas,” one official warned.
The dispute first blew up at the Baltic fish council in October 2021. Following one all-night session, Ireland’s fish negotiator was still lodged in his chair at 10am where he had remained overnight, refusing to sign up unless a question mark was placed over Denmark’s mackerel rights.
In the end, Ireland secured a proviso.
Denmark would have its 2021 mackerel quota. But its rights would be further investigated by Brussels. If Denmark’s claim was found to be without legal foundation, it would be reconsidered.
In Denmark, there was outrage, with the Irish accused of both an “ambush”, and a “mackerel coup”.
Agriculture and fisheries minister Rasmus Prehn declared that he would fight, declaring that former civil servants had been brought out of retirement to find the documents that would prove Denmark’s right to the fish.
He warned darkly of the consequences if Ireland succeeded in its mackerel heist, saying the EU’s very principle of relative stability, which determines shares to fish stock based on historical practices, was under threat.
“All countries will be able to come and claim each other’s quotas and rights,” he predicted, likening the scenario to the great battle and deaths of the gods foretold in Norse mythology.
“If you start to challenge relative stability, then you risk that the EU’s fisheries policy will become a big Ragnarok.”
Northern Europe’s mackerel are largely born in Irish waters, before heading north and east, in an annual migration that brings them around Britain and towards Norway in vast shoals of iridescent green and blue up to 9km long.
In theory, nations support co-operation, accepting that limits are needed to avoid past disastrous free-for-alls that decimated stocks. But each nation faces domestic pressures to bring back the largest possible quotas to prop up struggling industries and coastal towns.
Each year, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) releases its calculations of the “total allowable catch” of given species in different areas, setting out how many tonnes fishermen can take without driving their numbers into decline.
For some, like the devastated cod, this number can be zero. “Unilateral” quotas, granted by nations to themselves in the absence of international deals, have exceeded mackerel’s safe limits by 41 per cent on average since 2010, according to the ICES.
Once ICES releases its figures, the European Commission applies its relative stability formula to determine how many tonnes of each species each member state is entitled to catch.
But that is just the start of the hustle. Simultaneous, inter-linked negotiations are conducted between the EU and Britain, Norway, Iceland and beyond.
“We like to do all-nighters,” one seasoned fisheries negotiator said. “We’re kind of drama queens.”
The talks end with the EU’s December fish council, which begins this Sunday. Each country stakes its claims. Based on their interests in this fish species or that, countries team up in factions to fight for common interests, or block others.
“Smaller countries can get rolled,” a second diplomat said. “And have been.”
The shifting migration of fish shoals, possibly due to climate change, and the difficulties of dealing with Britain as a non-EU power with claims over much of northern Europe’s waters have made agreements harder to reach.
Denmark and Ireland do not agree on much regarding the contested 12,000 tonnes of mackerel. But they do agree that the whole dispute started in the wake of Brexit, when a deal with Norway lapsed.
The Norway transfer
Before Britain left, the EU and Norway exchanged some mackerel fishing rights between them.
“Norway could fish most of their quota in EU waters – in practice UK waters,” around Britain, explains Vidar Ulriksen, state secretary in Norway’s fisheries ministry. In return, EU boats from Denmark “could also fish a substantial part of their quota in Norwegian waters”.
This ended in 2020 with the UK’s exit, taking its waters with it. No replacement agreement has been possible since.
That means Denmark’s fishermen can no longer fish in Norwegian waters where once they caught rich, fat mackerel during October and November. Hence Copenhagen’s quest to secure 12,000 tonnes of mackerel elsewhere, in the request spotted by the eagle-eyed Irish official.
In Copenhagen’s view, this is part of its historic mackerel right and “therefore not linked to the reciprocal access transfer between the EU and Norway”, according to an internal commission summary charged with investigating the issue.
But Ireland insists Denmark’s claim was never an inherent historical right. Rather, it only ever existed because Norway was given mackerel in the sea around Britain and Ireland known as Western Waters.
In the absence of the Norway deal, the 12,000 needs to come back to Western Waters, Ireland argues. If it does so, Ireland is entitled to 50 per cent.
Into the archives
Officials in Dublin, Copenhagen and Brussels have dug back into archives of fish agreements going back to 1976, even calling up long-retired former officials to procure old notes and files.
“These were complicated agreements, some of which were recorded, some not,” one person familiar with the research said. “There were a lot of understandings, oblique references in council records, but the detail would be lacking.”
Having examined the evidence, the European Commission delivered its verdict in June. It quoted an annex to a 1983 document that said “Denmark renounces its claims regarding western mackerel” in return for “mackerel obtained from Norway”.
For Ireland, this was vindication. It established that the contested mackerel originated in Western Waters – and should return there.
Ireland may have won the legal argument, but there is politics, too.
Denmark has allies in Germany and Sweden who are described as being “in cahoots” with Copenhagen to get its support over North Sea herring quotas.
The commission has offered a compromise.
“We certainly won’t be getting zero,” an Irish industry source close to the negotiations said. “We expect somewhere in the region between 3,000 to 5,000 tonnes of it, but that’s all to be negotiated.”
Yet with Denmark still lacking a government over a month since its elections, its officials may have no mandate to compromise. Copenhagen is said to remain “convinced” that all 12,000 tonnes of the mackerel are theirs.
“They would rather lose it all, in the hope that in the long run they will keep it all,” a diplomat said.
This year, no agreement was reached in time for the quota to be fished by anyone – it was essentially lost to the EU.
As talks with the UK and with Norway rumble on without conclusion, there is a risk that the quota may again disappear. The mackerel may yet slip the net once again.