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MICHAEL WHITE: Us landlubbers can’t ignore fishing any longer

There has been outrage within the fishing industry at the Brexit transition deal that would see Britain adhere to the Common Fisheries Policy after formally leaving the EU. Picture: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment. - Credit: EMPICS Entertainment

Examining the suspicious industry which spies opportunities, but also senses danger.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images – Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Despite the presence of Nigel Farage but perhaps because he didn’t throw around discarded haddock this time, last weekend’s nationwide round of fishing port protests against Theresa May’s Brexit transition compromises didn’t make much impact in the media I follow.

There’s townies for you. They don’t think much about coastal communities except when they bowl up to rent the best cottages and hotels for the holidays and pile into restaurants the locals can’t afford – assuming they staycation at home in the first place. I was back in Cornwall at Easter, as usual. It’s been on my mind.

Even in the West Country the fish protest had to jostle for attention with reports of the £50 million which well-meaning, rich folk in London promise to spend on a new Westminster centre party. It’s a bad case of discarded money being wastefully thrown into the Thames in my opinion.

Sorry about that. But just because the hard left is busy repeating mistakes it made in the Bennite 1980s there’s no reason for the soft centre in any of the major parties to think they’re Emmanuel ‘En Marche’ Macron and repeat Roy Jenkins’s miscalculations too. Creating progressive policies, as Tony Blair’s think tank is doing – like many others in the current policy vacuum – is quite different from creating parties.

Fisher folk, most of whom tend to the UKIP side of an argument, aren’t much concerned about new centre parties. They more worried that Brexit Britain does not repeat the mistakes it made in the 1970s. When we entered the Common Market in 1973 the interests of the UK fishing industry were – by general consent – sacrificed in negotiation for what was thought to be the greater good.

It’s not hard to see why. Fishing, fish processing and support industries are hugely important to otherwise isolated communities in much the same way that farming is to middling market towns, even today when markets and abattoirs are so centralised.

But even in the 1950s fishing only employed 60,000. Today the number is around 12,000. Many of the crews (25% in some places) on our 6,000 mostly inshore vessels are from the distant Philippines or Ghana. Processing employs a similar number.

And fishing’s share of UK GDP? The Marine Socio-Economic Project puts it around 0.07% of the total. No wonder Ted Heath, though famously an ocean yachtsman and pillar of the sailing club in his native Broadstairs, thought that fishing – quite separate from the common agricultural policy (CAP) – wasn’t worth fighting too hard for. But, as in much else, Ted had a tin political ear. Fishing communities retain disproportionate sentimental heft, tied to an island people’s sense of the sea – however absurd that is in reality for most of us – of Drake, Nelson and the stoical sacrifices of lifeboat crews. As a small boy I was introduced to Willie Freeman, sole survivor of the 1939 St Ives lifeboat disaster in which seven men drowned. There’s also fish and chips: the nation’s dish (in theory).

If raw emotion wasn’t enough, Michael Gove, now Defra secretary, is the adopted son of an Aberdeen fish processor, put out of business by the EU, so young Mike says, though the point is disputed. Britain’s three cod wars (1958-76) with tiny Iceland over what became its claim to a 200-mile territorial zone – now the UN standard everywhere – pre-dated the EU. But Britain lost and its deep sea fleets were badly damaged before the common fisheries policy (CFP) made things worse.

The startling fact is that trawlers from EU member states took 683,000 tonnes of fish from UK waters in 2015 while UK fishermen took 111,000 tonnes, MPs report (official statistics confirm the pattern). The Danes get 85% of their fish from UK waters, France has 84% of the Channel cod quota. We have most fish, but our fish imports/exports are roughly in balance.

Far worse than mere national feeling is that in 2012 1.7 million tonnes, or 23% of the total EU catch, was discarded, thrown back into the sea – mostly dead – in obedience to the CFP’s quota system. It was designed to conserve stocks by preventing over-fishing, but hard to achieve when a trawler scoops up too many or catches other species by accident and breaches a low-catch quota.

It has been another nightmare for fishermen and for conservation efforts, though – in fairness – of 19 key species 70% are now fished to sustainability, up from 60% in 2015. Last year the cod recovery was declared sustainable. But fishermen, especially small family boats, have borne the brunt of heavy-handed regulation.

More better news is that the CFP and the EU’s 25-year strategy have been reformed. Contrary to Nigel (‘Frying Tonight’) Farage’s made-for-TV gesture at Westminster, the discard policy has been dropped and the goal of maximum sustainable yield (MSY) instated. Instead of top-down management, localism (do we still call it subsidiarity?) is in vogue along with a holistic view of conservation.

Good. But on the rotting quaysides of Hull, Grimsby and countless smaller ports, the old betrayal has left an abiding sense of grievance. No point in telling them that victorious Iceland’s fishing workforce has shrunk from 25% to just 4%. Icelanders are into financial services too.

At a Brexit seminar I attended at Leicester University in January the panel was harried by two tough old boys in their 80s who have been on Brussels’ case since 1973. They gave me Seizing the Moment, a pamphlet from Fishing for Leave – the group that organised last weekend’s protests – on how best to shape Brexit’s new fishing regime. It taught me a lot, albeit without providing the answers.

Meanwhile Gove’s ever-bubbling emotions did not prevent Theresa May making him look foolish when she completed the Brexit transition deal at the EU’s March summit in Brussels. Contrary to what she and he had said shortly before, May agreed that the CFP regime would rule UK waters until December 2020 – 21 months after we currently expect to leave on March 29, 2019. Mike was ‘disappointed’, many MPs in all parties, furious.

UK representatives will remain at the EU fishing table until December 2019 with observer status thereafter until we become a fully fledged ‘independent coastal state’ in 2021. Meanwhile Brusssels says we will retain the same share of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) quota and the EU27 has promised to take any decisions in ‘good faith’.

Given the history of mistrust between fishermen, who tend to be bloody-minded and suspicious individualists anyway – you would be too in a Force 9 gale in December – the assorted fishing organisations are also suspicious. In theory they could decide to fish up to the beach. But Gove and his Cornish farming (dad was a farmer) and fisheries minister, George Eustice, make what strikes me as a good point: if the 27 engage in fishy business towards us now, we will be in a position to be fishy back after 2020.

It’s not what any of us want and it’s not likely to happen now most people expect an orderly Brexit. As with everything Brexit-related the fish tank is complicated, not least because fish cannot be told what to do by either Gove or Jean-Claude Juncker. But it’s important to remember that, just as Germany makes most of the posh cars and Italy all the prosecco, the waters around British Isles have most of the EU’s fish.

That fact is not reflected in the CFP regime. But then it wasn’t in the 1964 London Convention on ‘historic rights’ which gave France 15 and Germany six, Belgium five, the Netherlands three and Ireland two specific fishing areas inside the UK’s six-to-12 mile zone, then prevalent. The UK got five zones in return, while other EU states were excluded.

Such deals date back to the Anglo-French Fishery Convention of 1839, but this generous settlement for the French reflected UK efforts to reverse de Gaulle’s 1963 veto and join the Common Market. More hisses from Peterhead to Padstow via Portavogie.

Covering the North Sea, Channel and Atlantic, the 1964 deal hurt inshore British fishermen forced to compete with foreign boats. So last July Britain gave the two-year statutory notice of withdrawal in line with its withdrawal from the CFP, uniquely a Conservative policy by the way. Is splendid ‘take back control’ unilateralism a good idea for such a mobile resources as fish? We’ll see.

In a Commons adjournment debate initiated by North Cornwall’s Tory MP Scott Mann – I grew up on his patch – Redruth and Camborne’s Mr Eustice declared: ‘At the end of the day it does not really matter what the EU asks for, but what we are prepared to grant it.’

Fighting talk, but the European Parliament has explicitly linked talks on the UK’s future trade deal with the EU27 with fish. It’s not rocket science: access works both ways, however much the minister or Fishing for Leave may insist they are completely separate. In the real world, they’re not.

Remember too how small the fishery sector is. But also remember that Scotland’s employs almost as many fishermen as England’s, even though – paradox, anyone? – the SNP (and Lib Dems) want to stay in the anti-UK CFP. Labour? It’s always hard to say, but part of its case for staying in the/a customs union, says spokesman, Holly Lynch, is to avoid Norway’s problem: having to send fish to be processed in Poland to avoid high tariffs, between 0% and 24% on seafood imports to the EU.

In Gove’s ‘disappointed’ Commons statement of last month he urged MPs to keep their eyes on ‘the bigger prize’ – the long-term goal of a customised UK policy to suit our own varied and very localised needs. Up to a point that’s a fair point. The more a Cornish landlubber like myself delves into the fishy detail, the more local it becomes.

So in terms of both markets and that MSY sustainability goal, what’s good for the Hebridean shellfish industry (mostly sold to France and Spain, they’re ‘too expensive’ for the English) isn’t right for the pelagic fishing fleets – think herring or mackerel swimming close to the surface in the North Sea – let alone for Cornish spider crab and brown crab catchers. Over-fishing hake is apparently a real problem in Scottish waters.

The rich British waters are mostly swum by mixed species in varying stages of maturity, which leads us to the heart of the problem, inside or outside the EU. How do you best nurture a healthy fishing industry – one which includes processing and markets – while also protecting the marine environment and protecting stocks from over-fishing? It was the fate that befell most of the St Ives fleet when the pilchards simply disappeared in the 1920s. The chippy’s sacred cod has narrowly escaped.

Plenty of well-meaning and informed bodies propose better solutions. That Fishing for Leave pamphlet talks darkly of big money, vested interests which buy and sell UK fish quotas (to foreign vessels) and need the CFP to protect their market value, and of the short-sighted lethargy of the Scottish industry. An important sub-plot is who gets the repatriated CFP powers back from Brussels – London or the devolved regions? ‘Why stop at Edinburgh?’ asks one localist Scots Tory. After all, the SNP wants to leave CFP powers in Brussels.

But Fishing for Leave’s own past fondness for the Faroe Island conservation solution – restrictions based on time trawlers spend at sea (it’s part of the so-called ‘effort regime’ which also measures a ship’s capacity) – is also open to objection, as the Faroes now accept. Time at sea rules encourage captains to grab whatever valuable fish they can close to the shore: not good for sustained diversity, experts say. In his Commons debate MP Scott Mann floated an updated Fishing for Leave idea, a hybrid model which would combine time at sea with annual quotas for specific species. It would require trawlers to land all their catch (by throwing away data, not something Facebook would ever do, the discard policy distorts scientific knowledge) and reduce time at sea for over-catching.

But time at sea would not include what us landlubbers would call travel-to-work time.

The technology now exists to monitor what the trade calls ‘net soak time’ – in other words the time the nets are in the water. Ministers, who promise a policy statement and a bill this year, are examining it and myriad other smart options. They will have to beef up enforcement too.

What do I know? Not much. But dazzling new technology does offer ways forward, as it does on the Irish border headache. In the US, New England trawlers now report their accidental ‘bycatch’ to marine scientists who can provide maps telling them – at sea – which areas to avoid if they’re not hunting that species. Real-time data, not EU stats which are two years out of date, matters to fishermen as much as it does to City bankers.

Oh yes, and nets or other equipment can be better customised to avoid catching the wrong stuff. It’s all encouraging, but will require cooperation with other states, not just the EU, but the wider Law of the Sea world: sovereignty will still be constrained even if May and Gove keep faith with divergent fishing interests and negotiate better than Sailor Heath did. We need each other, we eat each other’s catch.

For paranoid fishermen with pirate blood in their veins there is further concern. In Denmark last year Gove assured an audience they would still get access to UK waters because Britain lacks the capacity to catch or process all the available fish in its waters. To those who want funds and support to rebuild stricken ports – not all can do high-end tourism like St Ives – that is scary talk.

But international law, that constraint on elusive sovereignty that so enrages Farage and Trump, provides for just such outside interventions in the waters of a state which cannot fully harvest its own resource. ‘It’s not like the fishermen are going to vote Labour,’ rebel Tory fishery MPs were reportedly told by their own chief whip.

Stranger things have happened.

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