View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Business
  2. Sectors
10 May 2021

Brexit’s cod wars are far from over

Britain's fishermen face years of negotiations that will be influenced by political opportunism, environmental concerns and multinational ownership.

By Will Dunn

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).

[See also: The experts were right: Brexit is doing economic damage to 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”.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

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.

[See also: Brexit’s damage to business is no blip, new data shows]

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?]

Content from our partners
Future proofing the NHS
Where do we get the money to fix the world's biggest problems? – with ONE
Labour's health reforms can put patients first

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU