Can a fish be British? This is clearly a silly question, like asking if a horse can be an accountant. But the idea that animal life far from our shores somehow belongs to us is useful in politics. The French fishermen whose brief blockade of the harbour of St Helier last week could not have done more for the Conservatives’ electoral campaign if they’d personally gone knocking on doors. Few sights could inflate the throat-pouches of Daily Express readers more than the Royal Navy “seeing off” a group of angry French skippers in defence of “our” fish.
Fishing rights were a key part of the argument for Brexit. The EU’s quota system had long been felt to be unfair, and boats from France, Denmark and other nations extracted far more value – eight to ten times, in some cases – from UK waters than the UK did from theirs. Michael Gove claimed repeatedly that his own father’s fish processing business was “destroyed by the European Union” (this was pollocks: Gove Sr sold the business as a going concern), while in 2019, Boris Johnson misrepresented the fate of kippers from the Isle of Man (which, like Jersey, is not part of the EU, or for that matter the UK).
But in fishing, as in many other sectors, the reality of Brexit has turned out to be very different to the promises that were made. Because the UK didn’t reach a deal with the EU until the eleventh hour, negotiations with other coastal states such as Norway, Greenland and the Faroes were not begun until it was too late (after a certain point it’s not worth reaching any agreement, because target species will have migrated to another country’s waters).
Barrie Deas, the chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, told me the signing of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement in December was “a fairly brutal lesson” for his industry. The government “didn’t hold back on the assurances and promises that were made”, said Deas, “and then when push came to shove, a trade deal was more important. We completely understand that – fishing is relatively small economically, and became huge politically, because it has a symbolic dimension”.
This symbolic dimension is in effect on both sides of the Channel. France’s junior minister for European affairs, Clement Beaune, warned that France could seek to limit the ability of Britain’s £132bn financial services industry, which employs more than a million people, to operate in Europe if the UK is not more accommodating to French fishermen.
Deas and his industry have found that far from being an oven-ready conclusion to a process, the Brexit deal is the beginning of years of acrimony. “It looks like it’s going to be a prolonged, difficult journey. There’s scope for a great deal of toxicity in relations, because, instead of moving from one equilibrium to another equilibrium, you’re in an uncertain situation jostling for position. […] I expect that it will be a turbulent period on international fisheries for quite a long time.”
One political act was never going to be able to neatly resolve the problems faced by British fishermen because, as Deas points out, “the fishing industry in the UK is actually lots of different fishing industries”, each of which faces its own political, environmental and financial challenges.
In fact, in a globalised world, it’s not even accurate to say that a business fishing out of a British port is definitively British. Take for example the Kirkella – an 81-metre trawler, the only ship that actually brings cod from Norwegian waters to British chippies under a British flag – which was launched by Princess Anne and is owned by UK Fisheries Ltd. This all sounds as British as a proper blue passport, but UK Fisheries, while it is registered in the UK and pays taxes here, is actually a joint venture between two mutinational fishing companies from Holland and Iceland. The Kirkella brings its fish into the port of Hull, which is owned and operated by Associated British Ports, which is owned by pension funds in Canada, Singapore and Kuwait (part of the ownership is also British). About 75 per cent of the boat’s nearly 100 crew are British, the company told me, although as “share fishermen” they don’t have permanent contracts.
A spokesperson for UK Fisheries told me their company is “as British as Jaguar or Rolls Royce”, which is a fair point – many companies we think of as being British are owned overseas. What matters politically is the jobs and other investments in the UK economy that they create, and the company says it had planned £100m in investment in the UK, which may now have to be cancelled.
The truth is that a fish is only as British as the person who catches it, but for some politicians and sections of the press, it’s still useful to pretend otherwise. The fight over fish is far from over.
[See also: How much has Brexit cost the UK?]