Brexit isn't done: what next for fishing?

Even the most ardent Remainers believe the Common Fisheries Policy is unfair, but will leaving the EU address the inequalities in the fishing industry?

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The logo of Fishing for Leave is full of pluck, irony and determination. A stern-looking cod points a flipper at the enemy. 'Tis Britannia, taking back the waves.

Yet, despite the seductive mythology, when it comes to the cold reality of the trade negotiations, it seems quite possible that Britain's small-scale fishermen will be blown out of the water by the EU.

Put very simply, the UK imports the vast majority of fish it eats and exports the vast majority it catches. So unless we all start eating a lot more red gurnard and herring – and a lot less cod and haddock – we will have to maintain a good trading relationship with the EU.

“British tastes are extremely conservative with respect to fish,” says Griffin Carpenter, an environmental economist at the New Economic Foundation. "We're not going to start eating ten times as much herring tomorrow – it's still going to be exported to the Netherlands."

We want our fish back!

First, a bit of background. At 0.1 per cent of GDP, commercial fishing is less valuable to the UK economy than the computer games industry. In fact, it brings in almost exactly the same amount of money as recreational angling. Economically speaking, commercial fishing ought to be a side issue in the negotiations. But politically, it is sensitive.

That is because the UK's demands are simple to understand — we want our fish back! — and have been well communicated to the public by campaign groups like Fishing for Leave. Jingoistic headlines predict a return of the Cod Wars (which incidentally the UK lost). Politicians embrace the fighting talk. Fishermen skirmish on the high seas.

"Let's get Brexit done and take back control of our fishing waters," said Boris Johnson, perfectly surmising the Conservatives' stance on fishing when he was out campaigning during the election in Grimsby — a Labour seat that went Tory.

From a public relations perspective, if the government is to conduct a successful negotiation — allowing Boris Johnson to wave a kipper in triumph sometime in 2021 and keep Grimsby blue a few years later — it will have to increase the amount of fish the UK is allowed to catch, thus satisfying the likes of Fishing for Leave. Currently, the UK is bound by the quotas of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which the government wants to replace with yearly negotiations.

"Despite being an out-and-out Remainer, I'm no fan of the Common Fisheries Policy," says Luke Pollard, shadow environment secretary and Labour MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport.

"If you take cod and hake stocks in the English Channel as an example, UK fishers have between 6-8 per cent of that quota. French fishers have 80-82 per cent."

Leaving the EU and abandoning the CFP would in theory allow the UK to address this imbalance – we could be able to catch much more hake in the Channel. But the EU is unlikely to give up the prize of fishing in UK waters lightly. After all French fishermen have been sailing up the Thames for centuries.

Brussels has a number of weapons in its armoury to ward off reduced access to British seas: tariffs, customs checks, and, most likely of all, retaliatory measures against other industries ("financial services for fishing," commented Phil Hogan, the EU's chief trade negotiator).

"The EU are asserting that they will not offer a free-trade agreement unless they get status quo on the fish," says David Duguid, Conservative MP for the strong fishing constituency of Banff and Buchan. "But they would say that wouldn't they."

"It's a free for all at the moment. French, Dutch, Danish fishermen can catch their quota off the coast of the UK. They are quite rightly fearful of losing a big chunk of their industry."

"Most of their catch will be exported to the EU"

But the great irony of all this is that reducing access and increasing quota is far from necessarily "taking back control". Much in the same way that accounting is now dominated by the Big Four, fishing has been aggregated into a small number firms that hoover up the UK's fishing quota.

"The vast majority of quota is held by the six big fishing companies," says Pollard. "Many of those have large proportions of foreign ownership."

Furthermore, big companies, though they may register their boats as British, often land their catch abroad. Currently a boatload of herring caught off the Grimsby coast might be deposited in Rotterdam. This means that the economic benefits of the supply chain go to Holland, although the exports are still technically British.

So increased quota will probably benefit big fishing companies which have disproportionate interests abroad. Meanwhile small vessels that are under 10m long — the bobbing backbone of the British fleet — employ a staggering two-thirds of people in the UK's fishing industry and yet take home only 6 per cent of the UK's quota. That is because these small boats tend to specialise in catches like shellfish which fall outside the CFP.

"An 8m boat down in Cornwall that puts out pots to catch crabs and lobsters is not managed through EU quotas," says Griffin Carpenter. "They don't go more than two to three nautical miles from the coast so they are not in foreign waters. But they do export. Most of their catch will be exported to the EU."

Early indicators suggest that the EU will respond to UK demands of increased quota by jumping sector. But Brussels can also respond punitively within the fishing industry by increasing checks and tariffs on UK exports.

"If we can catch, land, process and sell up to twice as much as we are currently doing — which isn't going to happen overnight — then putting an extra 4-5 per cent on the cost of exports isn't going to make much of a difference," says David Duguid.

But, to take an example, the humble lobster is a proud UK export, and mostly caught by small-scale fishermen. Experts agree with Duguid that tariffs are unlikely to have an impact on lobster.

"If you're in a high-end restaurant in Paris, you might be willing to pay for the lobster no matter the price," says Carpenter. "If you're one of those restaurants you need to have that on your menu. That's the mark of a high-quality seafood restaurant."

If the EU responds to our howls for hake in the channel by levying tariffs on lobster, then it would not be a huge problem. However, increased checks at the border, especially on exports like shellfish (which are particularly valuable when exported live, bringing additional complications), could do major damage.

"If the EU decides to carry out all the checks that it does on seafood for non-EU countries, it will be difficult for small fishermen to comply," says Ivan Bartolo, a specialist in tariffs and customs at Seafish. "A lot of what they catch gets exported to Europe."

Small fishermen are most likely to struggle with any changes. Even if, as expected, there is a rebalancing of quota, larger firms will be able to invest more easily in new gear — nets, boats, trawlers —leaving their smaller compatriots floundering in their wake. But it all comes back to the same problem. We export what we catch and we eat what we import. 

"If you go on holiday to Portugal you will eat cuttlefish as a local delicacy," says Luke Pollard. "It is quite likely that that came from Plymouth."

The challenge for Johnson's negotiators is to ensure that the fishing industry gets a fairer share of quota by reducing EU access to UK waters, but that British cuttlefish still ends up on Portuguese plates. Taking back the waves is not quite as simple as it is made out to be. After all, there's no point being able to catch more fish if you can't sell it.

This piece is part of the New Stateman's Brexit isn't Done series.

George Grylls is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2019.