Bri­tain’s small-scale fish­er­men face a fight for sur­vival out­side the EU

The New European - - Agenda - BY SI­MON WATKINS

Agrey 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 last 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.

Photo: Si­mon Watkins

DIF­FI­CULTLIFE: Part of the small-scale Hast­ings fish­ing fleet

Photo: New Eco­nom­ics

FISH­INGZONES: Left, the 200 nau­ti­cal miles eco­nomic ex­clu­siv­ity zone around UK (in red)

Photo: Si­mon Watkins

NOT CIOMPLICATED: Fish­er­men in Hast­ings say they just want to go out and catch fish

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