Neil Watson was eight or nine when his dad took him out to sea for the first time. Soon he was earning his first pocket money by washing fish boxes on the quay at Brixham in south Devon. Three years after he started crewing, he got his skipper’s ticket and eventually he bought his own boat. For 30 years, he regularly spent seven days at sea followed by one night off, only stopping when his boat sank two years ago.
“I fished through good times and bad times. Fishing’s like riding a wave – one minute you’re up the top, and the next you’re down in the trough,” he said. Now Watson works at Brixham’s fish market, one of the largest in England, where £40m of fish was sold last year across the UK and Europe. A fisherman’s life is brutal, he said, but he badly misses the camaraderie.
Along the coast, in the picturesque Cornish fishing village of Mevagissey, Andrew Trevarton, a fisherman for 37 years, hasn’t been out to sea for two weeks because of atrocious weather. Nevertheless, Trevarton is feeling cautiously optimistic about the future. “You have to be an optimist to go fishing in the first place,” he said.
In 2016, Trevarton and Watson voted for Brexit, along with the vast majority of UK fishermen. The image of rugged men in sea-slicked oilskins braving weather and waves to put food on the island nation’s plates was a powerful emotional factor in the case for leaving the EU. After decades of battling over Brussels-set quotas, which allow European fleets to take a lion’s share of fish from waters around the UK, the idea of taking back control was irresistible.
Although the industry is a tiny part of the UK economy – worth less than 0.1% of the total in 2018 – it has become emblematic of a plucky, independent Britain, freed from the shackles of restrictions and regulations set by other people in other places, forging its own way in the world.
Much, therefore, is riding on trade talks that are due to begin at the start of March. According to Nigel Farage, fishing will be the “acid test” of Brexit. Boris Johnson reinforced this view in a key speech on EU trade negotiations earlier this month. Any agreement must ensure that “British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats”, said the prime minister, who visited Brixham last summer to meet fishermen and sample hake and chips on the quayside.
The timetable is extremely tight, with the EU saying that an agreement on fishing must be reached by the end of July, and the talks will be tough. A fishing deal is a precondition to a wider trade agreement, the EU has said – and some European politicians and officials have suggested that Britain’s access to the EU’s lucrative financial services markets could depend on EU fleets being allowed to continue to fish in UK waters on the same basis as now.
At the heart of the talks are issues of access and quotas. Under the EU’s common fisheries policy (CFP), all member states have equal access to EU waters apart from the first 12 nautical miles from the coast. At the end of this year, the UK will become an independent coastal state, operating under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea rather than the CFP. As such, Britain will have control over an “exclusive economic zone” up to 200 nautical miles off its shores – some of the most bountiful seas in the world.
Quotas are set for fish species in Brussels each year following scientific advice about the levels of stocks, and are allocated to member states on the basis of historic practice. Currently, EU boats are entitled to more than 60% of overall landings by weight from the seas around the UK, and for some species the proportion is greater. For example, the UK is allocated 9% of Channel cod, while the French get 84%. From next year, quota shares will be negotiated rather than decided in Brussels.
Expectations among British fishermen are high, but history has taught them to be wary. In Mevagissey, memories of what happened in the 1970s when Ted Heath was negotiating the UK’s entry into the European common market are part of local folklore. “We were traded off, basically thrown to the wall, sacrificed for other sectors,” said Trevarton.
Rodney Ingram, 75, who fishes inshore from a 20ft boat after a working life on and off the sea, said: “We were sold down the line, used as a bargaining chip. We gave [the Europeans] everything they wanted.”
Almost half a century later, they want redress. “We’re hoping politicians will recognise the great injustice done to the industry back then. We believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put it right,” said Trevarton.
He and Ingram were at pains to stress that they were not looking for European boats to be excluded from UK waters, pointing out that the UK fishing fleet doesn’t have the capacity to land the entire permitted quotas. But, they say, they want the cake divided up more fairly.
Trevarton, who is chairman of the Mevagissey Fisherman’s Association, listed their objectives: control over UK waters, a greater quota share, priority for UK vessels in inshore waters, and a management structure combining industry representatives and scientific experts.
Another point of contention is the EU’s demand that any deal negotiated between March and July is permanent. Britain wants annual talks.
“An annual agreement allows you to be active and nimble,” said Jim Portus, of the South Western Fish Producers’ Organisation. “It can reflect the movement and biology of fish, the needs and aspirations of fishermen, and bend and sway with fisheries science. The CFP had enormous fault lines running through it, but it was only amendable after 10 years.” Norway had been negotiating annually with the EU for 40 years, he pointed out.
Taking fish out of the sea is only part of the overall picture. About three-quarters of the seafood landed by UK fishermen is sold to EU countries – a trade reliant on being fast and frictionless. Brexit is likely to mean more customs delays and inspections – and if Britain restricts access to UK waters, the EU could impose tariffs on British exports. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French minister of Europe and foreign affairs, warned last week that if European boats were barred from UK waters, France would press for British trawlers to be prevented from selling their catches on the continent.
Some British fishermen fear their militant French counterparts could simply take direct action to prevent fish landed in the UK being brought into French ports. Barrie Deas of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) said he fully expected blockades. “French fishermen have done it for much less. I would imagine there will be disruption.” There is a long history of fishing skirmishes, most recently between the UK and France over scallops in 2018. But, unlike the French, “we aren’t naturally a confrontational society,” said Trevarton.
In an indication that such concerns are being taken seriously, it was reported this month that Britain has recently beefed up the Royal Navy’s Fisheries Protection Squadron with two extra ships, two aerial surveillance aircraft and 35 extra enforcement officers to police UK waters. A further 22 ships will be on standby.
Some argue that the fishing industry has distorted perceptions by depicting itself as beleaguered and struggling – a strategy that has allowed it to punch above its weight. Chris Davies, a former Lib Dem MEP and chair of the European parliament’s fisheries committee, said there was a national myth of a “small fishing boat with a couple of guys on board, going out from a little Cornish harbour at dawn and returning at sunset”.
In reality, the UK fleet is dominated by a small number of big players, some of them foreign-owned. Seven companies hold 51% of the UK’s fishing quota, and 27 trawlers working from Scottish ports bring in half the UK’s total weight in landings. Net profit in the large-scale fleet increased by 47% to €268m between 2015 and 2016, according to the most recent EU report. “Who is going to benefit from Brexit? The real beneficiaries will be the big guys,” said Davies.
Quotas were treated as property rights to be bought and sold. In England, more than half the quota has ended up in foreign hands. Plus, Davies said, the distribution of the UK quota was decided in London, not Brussels. “Large-scale vessels get 95-96% of the quota. The government could take some of the quota away from the big companies, and give the smaller guys a bigger slice of the cake.” That would benefit the “left-behind coastal communities” that Boris Johnson has promised to help. “But the powerful voices in the industry are the big companies. The guy who’s a part-time fisherman in Cornwall is not in a position to put pressure on the government.”
Rather than focusing on who catches the fish, the key question was how many fish there are to be caught, Davies said. “The industry and the government should make the strongest commitment to sustainability. The last 10 years have been pretty good – stocks are stable and in some cases increasing. The most important thing is not to go back to the days of overfishing.”
For the NFFO, fishing as a symbol of British sovereignty is welcome. “I don’t think fishing has ever been stronger politically,” said Deas. “The idea that past wrongs need to be righted is powerful. I think it would be extremely difficult for the government to come back from talks with fishing having been sold out again.”
He added: “We may not know the full implications of Brexit for years, or decades. But by the end of 2020, we’ll know if fishing has a more positive future.”
Nevertheless, any Brexit dividend would not be enjoyed equally across the sector, he conceded. “It will vary by area, by fleet, by fishery. There will be winners, and there will be lesser winners.”
On the quaysides of Devon and Cornwall, alongside hope there is a deep mistrust of politicians. At Brixham fish market last week, as boxes of sole, monkfish, plaice, brill and scallops were auctioned, loaded with ice and packed on to lorries, Neil Watson said the prime minister had “promised the earth” on his visit to the harbour last year. “I’m hoping Boris will be strong, but we know there could be a slap around the ear coming.”
In Mevagissey, Andrew Trevarton was also worried about being “sold down the line again”. He said: “The biggest fear within our industry is that the government will buckle under EU pressure and maintain the status quo. I hope that anything that comes from negotiations will be an improvement on what we have now. After all, could it be any worse? But it means putting our faith in politicians to push this through, and that’s always risky.”
The 70 registered fishing boats in Mevagissey’s harbour belonged to local family businesses, he said. “This place absolutely relies on a vibrant fishing industry. Our tourism is built on the back of fishing – people come to see a working harbour.”
Mevagissey is unusual in the relatively high number of young men entering the industry. Trevarton, whose 30-year-old son is also a fisherman, said: “I want our industry to thrive, and our fishing stocks to be sustainable. My son has a long working life ahead of him. I want a future for him and the other young men of this village.”
UK fishing in numbers
The number of fishermen (and a few women) in the UK
UK- registered vessels
People employed in fish processing and servicing the industry .
The value of the sector to the UK economy: The value of financial services is £132bn
The categories of fish landed by UK vessels: 55% pelagic (close to the surface) – mackerel, sardines, tuna, herring, anchovies. 25% demersal (close to the sea floor) – cod, haddock, monkfish, place, sole, turbot, hake. 20% shellfish – lobsters, crabs, scallops, whelks
The UK exports three-quarters of the seafood it lands, most of it to the EU) Two-thirds of the seafood consumed in the UK is imported
(Based on data from 2018)