Britain’s fishing industry
Jim Portus exposes the government’s betrayal of the fishing industry
The UK’s fishing industry was almost universally ecstatic about the referendum vote to leave the European Union in June 2016. Meanwhile, United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage stated at the time that the way the UK would deal with its fisheries would be the acid test for the whole of Brexit.
The industry was under no illusion that the vote to leave the EU would be the start, not the end, of a process that could take a decade to complete. Many feared that the UK’s fisheries would yet again be used as a bargaining chip by the government, with EU access to Britain’s waters traded away for a favourable deal on trade, exports, finance or access to EU markets.
The Fisheries Bill, however, included the welcome announcement that once the UK had withdrawn from the European Union we would proceed with plans to take back control of our own waters and set our own quotas for fisheries. This reassurance was reinforced by the announcement that the UK would also be withdrawing from the London Fisheries Convention, the legislation that allows foreign vessels to operate inside the 12-mile zone.
The Fisheries Bill received Royal Assent in November 2020. For the fishing industry, very little changed legalistically between June 2016 and December 2020, when the Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement was announced. The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020, and the final transition period ended on 31 December that year.
But 2020 had proved to be a very frustrating year for the fishing industry. The Covid-19 pandemic meant that travel was curtailed from early March, so Zoom and Teams became the norms of communication. David Frost, appointed as the UK’s chief negotiator, began formal face-to-face negotiations with EU officials in April. Within weeks, however, the scale and severity of the Covid-19 pandemic became clear, and the planned negotiations could not continue. The talks were therefore placed on hold and the agreement on fisheries was pushed back from July to December, to align with the wider trade deal. Although DEFRA kept the fishing industry updated as Lord Frost negotiated, fears were rife of a sell-out repeating that by Prime Minister Edward Heath in the 1970s.
At last, on Christmas Eve 2020, the fishing industry saw the details of the withdrawal terms. The industry had been given assurances by the top levels of government – the Prime Minister, senior cabinet ministers and the chief negotiator – that the industry would not be sold out in negotiations with the European Union. But in the event, any trust our industry’s members might have had in the government was shattered. UK fishing rights had indeed been sacrificed to secure the trade deal. The UK gained only a very modest increase in quotas for our fishing boats over a five-and-a-half-year adjustment period; the increase was equivalent to around 25 per cent of the value of fish previously caught by the EU fleet from UK waters. In the first year, just 15 per cent would be added.
In the end, our industry was duped.
The question is whether or not fishing, having exhausted its status as the Brexit poster-child, had become an embarrassment for the government – to become a lasting symbol of political failure to secure for the UK what is considered by many to be our finest national asset.
The first eight months of 2021 were as testing as most of 2020, because of Covid-19. As infections increased and restrictions remained, it was a period of uncertainty and volatility for many UK seafood businesses. New requirements to trade with the EU came into effect. Many exporting businesses experienced major disruptions early in the year, with increased transit times and costs still being an issue at the end of March.
But by summer 2021 the situation for the catching sector had become much calmer. As hospitality businesses re-opened, the trade in fresh fish products improved markedly with prices rising to levels last seen in 2019. All the saleable fish that was caught went at good prices. However, nothing could replace the income lost throughout 2020 due to Covid-19, and many smaller businesses were on the brink of collapse.
Nobody would have wished for a combination of Covid-19 and Brexit impacting the fishing and processing sectors at the same time, but it happened. The resilience of the industry has been tested and its survival is proof that seafood is a much-valued commodity.
The UK has some of the best fishing grounds in its Exclusive Economic Zone, but sadly far too much is taken away from it by foreign fishing boats. Even so, fish stocks have been steadily recovering and rising in biomass since about 2008, when the last decommissioning took place. There is optimism for the future of the stocks and therefore for the UK fleet prospects post-Brexit.
As the UK is about to enter negotiations for 2022, all of these factors will be in play, along with the mother of all headaches on how to manage non-quota species. The Specialised Committee for Fisheries and associated annual negotiations will be of central importance, but we have yet to see how this novel process will function in practice.
Some doubt that the UK industry will ever get back what was ceded by Edward Heath when he signed the Treaty of Accession to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in January 1972, but access rights probably go back to 1964 and the London Fisheries Convention, so we cannot blame all the wrongs of the Common Fisheries Policy on the EEC / EU. The UK government has had its eyes open all the time, even while it has shrouded the facts from the eyes of the fishing industry.
Another scandal has always been the abuse of the Red Ensign by foreign-owned fishing companies masquerading as British to reap our fish resources for their reward. There have been attempts, such as the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, to rid the UK Register of flags of convenience and quota-hoppers. But this is the realm of the Department for Transport, which has bigger fish to fry in the form of the commercial shipping register. The Fishing Vessel Register should have different rules of establishment and much stronger economic links to the flag state. Now that the UK is no longer subservient to the rulings of the European Court of Justice, a government is needed that is willing to tackle this thorny issue head on, and ensure that British fish is caught by British fishermen on vessels proudly and legitimately flying the Red Ensign.
In 2016, Nigel Farage happily associated himself with Fishing for Leave, a campaign group that became the public face of the fishing industry when Save Britain’s Fish, which had tried to unite the industry to force change, was disbanded. When, a week before the Referendum, I stood on the bridge of the Atlantic Challenge PD197 with her owner-skipper, John Buchan, in the Pool of London, eating grilled kippers with Mr Farage, none of us had any idea that history would be made.
And no idea how frustrated the industry would feel five years later.
Jim Portus MBE FIMarEST CMarTech BSc AFNI, spent more than ten years as an officer in the Merchant Navy, then worked for MAFF as a fisheries enforcement officer out of Brixham, ensuring that the local fishermen would abide by the Blue Book. Finally, he moved to the South Western Fish Producers’ Organisation, of which he is now CEO. Thanks to Phil Lockley for the use of all photographs in this article.