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Net loss: Why Brexit could spell disaster for fishing

Fishing has always been a totemic issue for Brexiteers. But the industry relies on close ties and cooperation with Europe. Could all that be discarded in pursuit of Brexit? PETER HETHERINGTON reports.

On the wild and beautiful coastline of north west Scotland, where the majestic Highland peaks roll down to the sea, a once-small port has become a thriving centre for EU fishing vessels. Scores of them are exploiting the Atlantic for varieties unknown to the British consumer: deep water species, such as grenadier and blue ling, alongside more conventional hake and coley.

That the small village of Lochinver has become dependent on large Spanish and French vessels, line fishing and trawling for their domestic markets, is a testament to the reality of differing EU preferences for specific fish and the pragmatism of local traders. Without EU trade the remote port would probably die. Now it is the second largest fishing port in Scotland, supporting hundreds of jobs in an area with few other employment opportunities.

Brexiteers’ inane blustering about the EU ‘nicking our fish’ – a view apparently shared by a majority of British fishermen, according to polls by their representative bodies – collides with the reality of both Lochinver’s success and the UK’s dependence on tariff-free access to the EU for UK fish exports. ‘They might rant ‘get them out of our waters’ but there’s no demand for some of the fish brought ashore up here,’ says one trader in the busy port, who alone sends ’20 to 30′ big refrigerated trucks of prime fish on the 30-hour trip from Lochinver to Brittany each week. ‘If the EU vessels go, we’re all heading for redundancy.’

Hard facts rarely support the argument, common in the domestic fishing industry, that leaving the EU will somehow liberate the seas around the UK for the exclusive use of English and Scots vessels. The reality of trading in Europe – namely the UK’s dependence on the EU for fish exports, such as langoustines and herring, is somewhat different.

For all the complexities of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, or CFP – which determines what species can be fished by member states in specific areas through a system of quotas – critics ignore important related trade issues which hinge on UK membership of the EU.

Then there’s another inconvenient truth: the revival of North Sea cod is a testament to conservation measures in the CFP and a structure of international agreements. An EU deal with Norway, a member of the single market, leads to a division of the cod catch with member states – and, thus, guarantees further supplies for UK tables. With rising sea temperatures, this species has migrated to colder waters often further north of the UK, underlining an ultimate irony: much of the fish in our countless chippies – some of which still proudly display the union flag as a badge of national pride – no longer comes from UK waters.

But then UK waters contain almost 90% of the adult population of herring, Europe’s most popular fish – and British fishermen think Brexit offers an opportunity to further exploit these stocks and escape from what they regard as the straightjacket of the EU-wide quotas in the CFP. Boats from Denmark and the Netherlands hold the largest quota shares for North Sea herring.

Unsurprisingly, other EU fishing nations are becoming uneasy. Fishing associations from France, Spain, Germany, and Sweden have joined Dutch and Danish counterparts to campaign for the retention of the current quota system.

While talk of rising militancy in the fishing ports of Europe is so far premature, fishermen in parts of the EU have a record of direct action. Those of a certain age recall the Icelandic cod wars of the 1970s (when the small north Atlantic nation was clearly the victor) which sealed the fate of former fishing ports such as Hull and Grimsby. Subsequent threats of Danish boats invading Scottish waters in the battle for herring briefly made the headlines. But no one needs reminding that fishermen along the French Channel coast – taking a lead from their farming compatriots – still have a habit of blockading ports, from Calais to Boulogne, in pursuit of seemingly obscure national interests.

If detractors view the CFP as a complex web of quotas, and restrictions, overseen by a faceless Brussels bureaucracy seemingly bent on selling Britain short, in truth it cannot be separated from the benefits of the wider EU single market – on which exporters, from the small port of Lochinver to countless UK processing outlets, depend.

The UK is dependent on EU markets for most of the fish it exports. In other words, what Brexit delivers with one hand it can take away with the other. Around three-quarters of the UK catch is exported to the EU. Research last year by the House of Commons library put its value at £604 million annually. Around 12,000 people are employed directly in the overall industry; overall, 18,000 jobs are supported in 376 fish processing centres. As for the implications of Brexit on the industry, the Commons library diplomatically observed that life outside the EU for UK fishing will be ‘highly uncertain’.

But aside from the UK, no other country will be hit harder by Brexit than our closest trading partner: the Republic of Ireland. Its sea food sector is worth one billion euros annually, employing 11,000 people in coastal areas, and more than 30% of its catch comes from UK waters.

Mackerel, for instance – a key fish for the Irish industry – is at its best off the Shetland lslands. And Ireland’s main fishing port, Killybegs, in Donegal, is closer to prime (UK) fishing grounds than many British ports.

The Dublin government has a further concern: namely that Brexit, in the words of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation to a committee of the Irish parliament, will mean a ‘mass displacement of other EU vessels into Irish waters’.

In Britain, however, a majority of fishermen are convinced that Brexit will somehow restore maritime sovereignty. A minority, however, aren’t so sure – and with good reason. They rightly fear that in the fraught Brexit negotiations between the British government and the EU, fishing will become a bargaining chip when set against other sectors of the economy deemed more vital to UK plc.

In other words, might a concession to allow EU vessels continuing access to UK waters be a price worth paying – say – to stay inside the common EU aviation area, for instance? Not much contest on that score.

• Peter Hetherington is a former regional affairs editor of the Guardian

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