Britain’s small-scale fishermen are, without doubt, among the country’s ‘left behind’. But Brexit will not improve their lot. SIMON WATKINS reports.
A grey September morning on Hastings Beach. Boats are being hauled up the steep pebble slope after their early morning fishing trips. A gentle breeze wafts in from the English Channel. The air is mildly salty, but the language among some of the fishermen is even more so.
‘They’re a bunch of total f**king wankers!’
The speaker is a fisherman bemoaning the government’s perceived betrayal of fishermen in its Brexit planning. The anger is visible all around. A flag fluttering from one of the tall black wooden fishing sheds demands: ‘No Fishing Sell Out!’ Down on the beach, amid the crates and pallets, is an even more embittered sign.
Addressed directly to Theresa May, it declares: ‘Ain’t you lucky? We used to hang traitors in this country. Out Means out!’
The town of Hastings voted 54% for Leave, slightly more strongly than the UK overall. But down among the fishermen, there is not a Remainer to be found.
The recent scallop war off the coast of France has pushed fishing back up the Brexit agenda. The scenes of British fishing boats clashing with angry French rivals have stirred Brexiteer hearts. The scallop skirmish itself was unconnected to Brexit and centred on a quite specific and localised row over the scallop season, but some suspect it could be an omen of things to come.
The rules of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy will remain in place for the UK until the end of 2020. But then we will need a new deal.
In July Michael Gove’s Department of the Environment Farming and Rural Affairs, issued a White Paper optimistically entitled ‘Sustainable Fisheries for Future Generations’, intended to outline what shape this deal could take.
Consultation on the White Paper ended this month. It was broadly welcomed by major fishing bodes including the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO). Barrie Deas, chief executive of the NFFO said, enthusiastically: ‘We think the white paper has got it right on the big ticket issues.’
Critics argue it is more a wish-list than a definite plan and offers little real hope to the vast majority of Britain’s 12,000 fishermen. One problem is that these fishermen do not however represent a single economic interest.
A handful of companies and individuals operating large trawlers dominate the industry, but the vast majority of the ‘workforce’ are those who operate smaller scale boats, defined as those under 10 metres in length.
These 4,000 plus smaller boats account for almost 80% of the UK’s total fishing fleet. It was, of course, members of this community who famously sailed down the Thames with Nigel Farage during the 2016 referendum campaign to voice their fury at the EU.
The fishermen of Hastings are all small scale operators. Some of their boats may look big to a landlubber, but none are more than 10 metres in length.
That life is difficult for many of these fishermen is beyond doubt. The New Economics Foundations estimates that while profit margins among the biggest trawlers average 19%, for the under 10 metre fishing fleet it is zero.
Former Hastings fishermen Pete White is drinking tea with former fishing colleagues. He believes he was driven out of the trade by the effects of Britain’s EU membership and the Common Fisheries Policy. The mistake was made many years ago, he argues, but the attitudes continue to this day. ‘To the government, fishing is unimportant. They sold us out in 1973,’ he declares.
The fury of the fishermen ranges over a vast array of perceived and often real injustices, but their ire is focussed on two core issues – the free access to British waters allowed to continental boats, which can fish up the six mile limit, and, of course, the quotas, which limit the quantities of fish that can be caught. For the fishermen the two are closely interlinked.
Adam Williams is in his early 20s and works on one of three boats owned by his family, who have been fishermen for several generations. ‘The quota is one of the main things,’ he says. ‘We only get a tiny amount of the quota. And then we get Belgian trawlers who fish right on the six mile limit. When we come out of the EU the limits can be pushed back. Then the quotas will be shared out better.’
Along the beach, Robert Ball and crew have just returned from a fishing sortie and are sorting out their nets. ‘We see big powerful boats right on the six mile limit. They fish 24 hours a day, they go back Friday and then they’re back on Monday morning.
‘The government has not got a clue. It’s so complicated, I do not understand it. We just want to go to sea and catch fish.’
The discontent is far from unreasonable. Britain’s small-scale fishermen are quite right that they have had a raw deal for decades. The obvious injustices and are clear in the numbers. In the Channel, French fishermen hold more than 84% of the quota for cod. English fishermen have just 9%.
As for the quota allocated to individual boats, the inequality is just as stark. The small fishing vessels (which we should recall make up 80% of the UK’s fleet) are entitled to just 4% of all the UK’s fishing quota. The vast bulk is held by larger boats. In some instances the majority of quota for one particular fish stock is held by just one vessel. So on this at least, the Brexiters are right. The small-scale fishermen have been treated appallingly. They are truly part of the ‘left behind’.
But are the Brexiteers also right that the troubles of the smaller fishermen are entirely the fault of the EU? And even more critically, is Brexit really the solution?
The tiny quota available to smaller fishing boats and the economic dominance of larger vessels is not the fault of the Common Fisheries Policy or any other EU measure. The decision over how each member state divides its national quota among its fleet is entirely a matter for national governments.
What is more, the British government’s recent fishing White Paper makes clear it has no plans for change on this front. ‘We do not intend to change the method for allocating existing quota,’ it states.
Chris Williams, senior programme manager at the New Economic Foundation and an expert in marine socio-economics, comments: ‘The key promise of more quota for small boats was always within the power of the UK government, not Brussels. It still is, and yet this White Paper specifically states that the existing quota ownership will not be challenged.’
So the small-scale fishermen may have some grounds to feel betrayed. But this has nothing to do with whether or not Brexit happens or even what type of Brext deal is agreed. It is because the UK government is not changing its own rules for allocating fishing quota to individual vessels.
So if the EU has nothing to do with the quota for each vessel, is it to blame because of the low national quota? Would Brexit and escaping the EU’s notorious Common Fisheries Policy allow a significantly bigger total catch for British fishermen, and so lift all boats?
In theory, yes.
It is almost impossible to find anyone who believes the Common Fisheries Policy is a success. Deas, at the NFFO, describes it as ‘cumbersome’. Jeremy Percy, chairman of the Coastal Producers Organisation – which represents small scale operators – calls it ‘a disaster’.
A key failing of the policy, as its stands, is how national quotas are allocated. These are based on historical catches from the 1970s, a system called ‘relative stability’. Britain’s low quotas in some fish stocks have been blamed on poor record-keeping for British catches in this period, which underestimated how much British fishermen were catching, and on poor negotiating by the then UK government. This is what led to the manifest nonsense of British fishermen getting just 9% of the cod in the Channel.
The government’s fisheries White Paper proposes that Britain will take control of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This is the water extending to 200 nautical miles beyond our coast. It will control the amount of fish caught in those waters and who is allowed to fish there.
So, in theory, this could increases the fish available for British fishermen. Percy says: ‘If Brexit means Brexit, and you take the narrow view, then yes there could be more fish for small scale fishermen to catch.’ But, as Percy himself explains, this theoretical view also needs to take account of the realities of the exit negotiation and the wider trade picture.
In total, British fishermen catch about 700,000 tonnes of fish each year. Some is landed and sold in EU ports. Of the fish landed in the UK, most is also then exported, again mostly to the EU.
The net result is that very roughly half of all fish caught by British fishermen is ultimately sold in the EU. Percy points out that exports are particularly important to the small-scale fishermen. So even if British fishermen are able to catch far more fish, where will they sell them?
The second hard reality, recognised in the White Paper, is that once the UK leaves the EU it will still be bound by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This requires maritime nations to co-ordinate with neighbours over ‘shared fish stocks’. This would apply to the many fish that flagrantly ignore international maritime borders and swim back and forth in the North Sea, Irish Sea and English Channel.
Recognising this reality in its White Paper, the UK government proposes annual negotiations between Britain and the EU, in which national fishing quotas and access to each other’s waters would have to be agreed.
The White Paper insists the UK government will keep these negotiations over fishing entirely separate from the rest of the trade negotiations with the EU. Experts point out that this is pure wishful thinking.
‘There is no way that is going to happen,’ says Chris Williams at the NEF. Indeed the EU has already indicated that the rights for its member states’ boats to fish in UK waters will be linked to negotiations over Britain’s ability to export fish to the EU.
Williams argues that we would have been far better off renegotiating fishing rights while still inside the EU, rather than from the outside, and at the same time as we negotiate everything else.
As it is, neither the EU nor the UK holds all the cards when it comes to fishing. EU fishermen are heavily dependent on their access to the waters around Britain. But British fishermen are also dependent on access to EU waters and, even more so, to the EU export market.
So, as ever, it all comes back to trade negotiations. The outcome is uncertain and, if there is no-deal, unthinkable. But the idea that Britain has the upper hand in fishing, or that British fishermen will emerge clear winners is, at best, highly dubious.
The only obvious potential winners might be the large industrial scale trawlers for whom Brexit could bring bigger catches in those waters out to the 200 mile limit. But these are not the British fishermen wheeled out by Nigel Farage, and they are not the ones who need help.
For the struggling small-scale fishermen, more dependent on exports and already operating on narrow or non-existent profits margins, Brexit offers at least as many risks as it does rewards.
The NEF’s Chris Williams is clear. ‘[Small fishermen] are grossly mistaken if they think Brexit will make things better for them.’
Jeremy Percy is even more blunt: ‘More fish for British fishermen! That was what was offered, along with £350 million a week for the NHS… and all the other lies.’
Down on Hastings beach, the fishermen are likely to be angry for some time to come.