Fishermen fear a catch during negotiations over Brexit
PUBLISHED: 13:30 04 February 2017 | UPDATED: 10:53 05 February 2017
The traditional industry has been in a steady decline for years, but after hopes coming out of the European Union would provide a more level playing field, many suspect we may sign up to yet more restrictions on what can be caught
FISHERMEN around the Kent coast are fearing for the survival of the industry after Brexit as they do not believe the government will deliver a clean break with the EU.
The Thanet Fishermen’s Association and Whitstable Fishermen’s Association have thrown their weight behind a 90 page document by Fishing for Leave, an independent campaign aiming for withdrawal from existing EU fishing regulations in order to regain control over the country’s fishing waters and rejuvenate the industry.
Following Theresa May’s speech on Brexit last month, chairman of the Thanet Fishermen’s Association John Nichols went to Downing Street to meet fisheries minister George Eustice and Brexit minister David Jones.
He is campaigning for a complete repeal of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), with its quotas and principle of equal access to commercial fishing grounds for boats from all member states, often branded a disaster for Britain.
But even after the UK voted to leave on June 23, Mr Nichols and other fishermen around the county fear that the government will not have the UK fishing industry high on their priority list when it comes to Brexit negotiations.
Worse still, they foresee elements of the widely contested Common Fisheries Policy could be still be retained.
“My gut feeling is they will retain the CFP, and possibly sell us off like Edward Heath did in the 1970s when he gave away access to our waters as a trade off for the common market,” said Mr Nichols, who took part in the pro-Brexit flotilla along the River Thames with Nigel Farage a week before June’s referendum vote.
“The industry is a shadow of its former self,” he adds, “in the 1970s we had really good opportunities, but they have slowly been eroded by the EU.
“Most of the fishermen are over 40 and they are coming up to retirement with no-one to take their place.
“Quotas just don’t allow you to earn a sustainable living, so most industries have been passed down through the family rather than attracting younger people into the industry.
“Our main species is Dover sole, bass and cod. But we have been banned from catching bass this year on the grounds of conservation.”
Quotas - known as the toal allowable catch - were introduced as part of the CFP to ensure protection of key fish levels to guard against over fishing. Each country is given a total amount it can fish in certain waters and that is then divided or traded among the member states. In addition, there are regulations over the size of each species caught to ensure fishermen do not kill young fish which will eventually breed to keep levels sustained.
Although it is not yet known whether the quota system will be dropped upon leaving the EU, Mr Nichols and other members of the Fishing for Leave campaign fear that Mrs May’s plan to adopt EU laws into British law under the Great Repeal Bill could leave fishermen saddled with Brussels legislation.
In a House of Lords report released in December, it was found that the UK fishing industry will need continued EU markets if it is to thrive after Brexit.
It also warns that Britain may have to allow EU-registered boats to fish in UK waters as part of an overall deal, as well as suggesting that elements of the CFP should be retained.
Green MEP for the south east Keith Taylor agrees the UK will still have to agree on fishing quotas with its European neighbours post-Brexit. He also said the reformed Common Fisheries Policy helps, not harms the country’s fishing stocks as it prevents over-fishing.
He told us: “The EU is phasing out the discarding of unwanted fish and setting quotas more in line with scientific advice.
“EU fishing quotas may attract controversy but they are often misunderstood. Fisheries ministers from across the EU work to set the limits, but it is UK government that is responsible for distributing the country’s fishing quota.
“Shockingly, the UK government has decided to award a single giant Dutch-owned vessel a quarter of the English fishing quota. That is not an EU decision. In fact, alternative allocation systems advocated by some pro-Brexit groups are already in place elsewhere in Europe.”
But Graham West of the Whitstable Fishermen’s Association says EU-style quotas cannot continue if the industry is to survive.
“When we went into the common market, we had the largest fish stocks and the largest fleet,” explains Mr West, who owns West Whelks on Whitstable harbour. “Now we have the smallest fish fleet and the smallest stocks left as our waters have been abused by other countries.
“At the moment we have 250kg quotas of skate a month when other boats are allowed to catch fives times that. What person wants to go to sea for 12 hours and earn £80?
“A lot of people that set the quotas are sitting in an office and haven’t got a clue about how our industry works. We’re told we are allowed to catch haddock, when we haven’t seen a haddock in almost 50 years.
“At the moment we also have a cod quota, but the sea is too warm down here and there is not a cod in the sea - although in the north of England they have lots.
“Before you could catch what you want, and when they disappeared you would go onto something else.
“But now we have people sitting in an office telling us what we can and can’t catch.
“What we need is a regional board involving four to five fishermen who really can fight for us and have an idea of what fish stocks are available in that area.”
Long-term fishermen Bluey Walpole from Hollowshore Fisheries on the Swale estuary is also hoping that there will be an end to national quotas determined by the EU.
“I left school when I was 14 and then did an apprenticeship to become a fisherman, and I never agreed to going into the EU in the first place.
“People with a university education do not seem to understand how inshore fisheries work. They give us stupid quotas at stupid times of the year.
“I get a feeling that I have spent the majority of my life being walked over.”
His eldest son Julian Walpole, who is a fisherman in Queenborough, added: “Theresa May hasn’t quite made it clear what she is up to, and until we start hearing answers from her we don’t know what is quite going on with the fishing industry.
“British waters should be fished by British boats, but fisheries are already saying we will have to use Europe’s rules and regulations because we don’t know our own. Until we start contracting our rules locally it won’t get any better.
“There are too many people telling us what we should and shouldn’t do, but the truth is scientists who devise these rules just don’t understand.”
As well as campaigning for fishermen to have more of control of their own stocks, South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay says he will be fighting for a better deal for smaller scale fishermen.
Smaller quotas are dished out to boats under 10 metres long, which primarily makes up the fleet in Kent. Because of these restrictions, fishermen have reported a huge decline in industry in fishing towns like Folkestone, Ramsgate and Whitstable.
Explains the Conservative MP: “In Ramsgate, we have many small scale fishermen who are extremely environmentally friendly but are dished out appallingly low quotas.
“The under 10m boats are also attractive for the tourist industry, as people like to come and see some of the old fashioned fishing boats.
“What we need are hourly based quotas where whatever you catch you keep to ensure the survival of the industry.”
He added: “Skate is a crucial stock, particularly in Ramsgate. But as they are protected across the EU, you can hardly catch any of them.
“The fishermen are reporting that they are seeing lots of them, so it would make sense if they were able to manage our own stocks locally.”
MP for Canterbury and Whitstable Sir Julian Brazier said although the number of fishing vessels had dramatically declined over the years, Brexit represented a “real opportunity” to rebuild our fishing industry.
“I think the EU has been a disaster for fishing and that’s why so many fishermen have come to parliament to protest,” he said.
“Whilst we need to re-assert our territorial waters, we don’t need to exclude everyone and our new deal is likely to be better.
“There has to be something done about a system where we throw fresh, dead fish over the side.
“What we also need is a better deal for smaller vessels, as at the moment too much quota is taken up by the larger vessels.”
Speaking of potentially keeping some elements of the widely contested CFP, Mr Brazier added: “Overall it’s in our national interest to negotiate where we can, but only we should decide what elements we should keep.
“It’s important to recognise that fishing has been hammered by the EU. It will take us years and years to turn it around, but now we are taking charge of it.”
Despite scepticism from fishermen around the county, the chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations Barrie C. Deas said he was confident fishing would be given priority by ministers in Brexit negotiations.
“When the UK is out of the EU, that also means we will come out of the disastrous CFP.
“That doesn’t mean to say our area can’t be shared, but we will have international fishing negotiations not dictated by Europe.
“But at the moment we are governed by EU law which means in the eastern Channel, 84 per cent of the cod quota goes to France and only nine per cent goes to the UK.
“The deal we got in the 1970s and 80s was so unfair, where fishermen weren’t given political priority and sacrificed to bigger economic interests, and areas like Kent did the worst when the quotas were introduced as they weren’t part of a bigger federation who would stand up for their interests.
“But we met with David Davis in August and he said fishing will be high up on the negotiations with the EU, so I believe Brexit gives us an opportunity to fix that.”