Who owns the fish in the sea? Well, no one truly does, but for the purposes of managing marine resources in EU waters, fish are fundamentally a public resource owned by all of us. This view is universally held across the fishing industry, government, and civil society and serves as the first principle from which fisheries management is derived.

What is strange then is how little bearing this principle has had on how fisheries are managed in the EU. Powerful fishing interests have defined the answer to their benefit, but to the detriment of progress towards sustainable fisheries.

Commercial fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic are predominantly managed through quota allowances – a limit on the amount of fish that can be harvested in a given year. These quota limits are agreed annually by EU fishing ministers and allocated to member states in fixed shares before member states allocate fishing quota to their fleet through national policy. Brexit does not change this – the UK has always had this power over how fishing operates.

This system of allocating fisheries resources through quota allowances, in place since 1983, has changed very little, and most member states continue to allocate quota in the same shares to the same fishing licences. This consistent allocation of quota allowances to incumbent fishers has locked the system in place, steadily removing the ability to manage fisheries in the public interest by generating an expectation that these quota allowances would continue unabated.

Fish are fundamentally a public resource owned by all of us.

This claim over quota allowances was tested in 2012 when the UK government reallocated consistently unused quota from the large-scale fleet to the small-scale fleet. When the large-scale industry took the case to court on the grounds that this constituted a deprivation of possessions under the European Convention on Human Rights, the court ruled that it was not a deprivation as the quota in question was unused. On the larger question however, the judge clarified that quota could in fact be considered a possession as a legitimate expectation” around quota shares had formed, despite this expectation being built very much of sand” as no-one can own the fish of the sea”.

Quota could be a possession: UK fishing quota had, unbeknownst to the public, become accidentally privatised. With an estimated value of £1.1 billion (€1.2 billion), researchers cite this ownership claim based on continued, unchallenged use as the largest squatting claim’ in UK history. As other member states continue to allocate their quota to the same licenses there is little doubt that these same shocking results hold elsewhere. Just as alarming, for most member states the actual owners and beneficiaries of fishing quota (and therefore how concentrated quota ownership has become) is a complete mystery.

With fishing quota accidentally privatised, the government’s hands are now tied. Reallocating quota to low-impact fishing methods to create a more sustainable fishing industry is met with the resistance of a property holder relinquishing their land. The same applies for plans to set aside quota for new and young entrants into the industry. Worse still, as quota allowances continue to increase in value, the gifting of these fishing rights (free of charge) to one generation of fishers has made it even more difficult for new entrants to join the industry. It is a particularly strange system to reward those who were (over)fishing the hardest at one particular point in time, but that is exactly what allocating quota based on a track record implies.

UK fishing quota had, unbeknownst to the public, become accidentally privatised.

This feeling of entitlement to fishing quota has also stymied progress towards sustainability. Despite independent scientists commissioned to provide advice on sustainable fishing levels, the Council of Ministers consistently sets quota allowances above this advice – especially if the advice was for a quota reduction on the previous year. The industry lobbyists aim to protect or grow their belongings, rather than acknowledging a gift of access to a public resource – one shared with other stakeholders and future generations.

What is most incredible about this accidental privatisation of European fisheries is that the substantial costs of fisheries management (e.g. control and enforcement, data collection, research and scientific surveys) are not borne by those extracting private profits but by the wider public. Other industries extracting a public resource pay a resource levy but fisheries has passed by unnoticed, even now that fish populations and industry profits are increasing year-on-year through improved management. European fish stocks are now managed through the worst of worlds: private profits at a public expense.

But this need not be the end of the story. In Denmark where fisheries are closer to the media spotlight, quota allowances have a period of validity, essentially leased (free of charge) from the government. Other member states could issue a notice period to allow fishers to recoup investments and follow suit. Perhaps the spotlight on fisheries that Brexit has provided will provide the catalyst to do so.

Just as important as this practical change is a wider change in thinking. No one owns the fish in the sea, or if anyone does, we all do. Even the symbolic act of fishing quota passing from governments to the industry is therefore important to reclaim the resource as ours.

As the annual quota negotiations take place in the coming months, and a policy deadline to end overfishing for all commercial fish stocks by 2020 quickly approaches, a shift in thinking is urgently required. Future generations – fish, fishers, and hungry mouths – depend on it.