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12 September 2018

The end of “black gold”: how a no-deal Brexit could backfire on Britain’s fishermen

“If we haven’t got a market to sell our products to, then there won’t be much point in actually going out and catching it.”

By India Bourke

Maybe it was the soft, early-evening light, or the sound of the live-music drifting over from the nearby “Pirate Festival”, or simply the luck of an impossibly-sunny bank holiday weekend, but spirits were high when I visited the quayside in Devon’s fishing town of Brixham, in May this year.

On the deck of a small day-boat named the Deborah-Jane, Dean Corbett and his son were winching their haul of silver seabream up onto the quayside, where 62-year-old Pete stood in wait to receive the catch.

The chat swung easily between fish, girlfriends, and Brexit: “It would be better if we get our waters back and sort it out; that’s got to be better than being ruled by someone else,” said Pete, who started work on his grandparents’ boat aged just 13 and now works for the local trawler agent.

Pete’s support for “taking back control” of British waters seemed more rooted in a hard-learned sense that you can’t rely on anyone but yourself than in the cocky, swashbuckling nostalgia of Nigel Farage. And Dean, who voted for Brexit, expressed similar sentiments: he started his fishing business so that he could ensure his son, who is sight impaired, had fulfilling work. 

Yet it seems increasingly likely, in the event of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal, that such small-scale fishermen and their families will become more vulnerable than ever.

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This week the National Audit Office has released a report criticising the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for its failure to sufficiently prepare for a “no deal” exit from the EU.

Of particular concern is the lack of adequate “control and enforcement activities” in English waters. “Defra hopes to significantly increase vessel patrol hours, but due to delays in procurement and planning is unlikely to reach its originally intended patrolling capacity by March 2019,” said an offical NOA statement accompanying the report.

This suggests that, even if the government is able to keep its pledge (as outlined in a white paper this July), to provide UK fleets with a “fairer share” of fish quotas, it may not be able to police any new quota areas it creates.

Preventing skirmishes between UK and foreign boats could thus prove even harder to prevent than they already are: in recent weeks, French and English vessels resorted to violence off the Normandy coast, over confusion about rights of access that already exist.

And even if British access to improved quotas can be obtained and enforced, there are fears that new obstacles to trade with European markets could quickly off-set any quota gains.

“The majority of UK-caught fish is exported,” explains Jim Portus, chief executive secretary at the South Western Fish Producer organisation. “So what we want to ensure not only the ability to keep catching good quality fish – but also that it gets to its customers in as good a condition as possible, without delay en-route.”

“I understand that’s a potentially controversial thing to say, given that some of my colleagues are determined we should become the great island nation we have been in the past – but if we haven’t got a market to sell our products to, then there won’t be much point in actually going out and catching it.”

Small-scale, English fishermen, who fish species unpopular with with British consumers, could be particularly hard hit if new customs checks are required. UK cuttlefish, for instance, is so popular on the European market it is known as “black gold” among Brixham fishermen – but queues at borders and higher adminisitrative costs could eat into profits.

Even the chief executive of the National Federation of Fisherman’s Organisations, Barry Deas, sounded concerned about the prospect of impediments to trade when I spoke to him earlier this year: “When you are dealing with a live, perishable commodity, then any [impediments] can be problematic. I’m not saying there wouldn’t be casualties in that worst case scenario, but I think the industry would adapt.”

Yet it is unlikely just to be individual businesses that suffer if harsher customs checks are introduced. A recent report by researchers at the New Economics Foundation showed how coastal communities are already particularly at risk of high unemployment, low wages and insolvency, suggesting any hit to a particular industry could have wider knock-on effects.

With Tory MPs threatening to withold backing for the government’s Brexit roadmap, the prospect of a no-deal unleashing chaos – both in the English Channel and on shore – is thus becoming ever easier to conceive.

As the chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, Meg Hillier MP, has said in a statement responding to NOA’s report: “The government needs to be honest with the public about its progress in delivering key elements of Brexit and must be upfront about what won’t be delivered in time.”