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Here’s why not everyone in fishing is excited about Brexit

It’s not the EU that’s breaking the UK’s small fishing fleets, it’s the big industry players. And Brexit could make that worse.

Image: Fishing boats, Mevagissey, Cornwall. Credit: Amy Burton/Flickr, CC 2.0

I’m from Cornwall, a county where over 56 per cent of voters in the 2016 referendum opted to leave the European Union. When I’ve asked people why, one of their top reasons is fishing – taking back control of our waters and becoming free of the unfair rules set by bureaucrats in Brussels.

The pro Leave fishing community has been very visible in the Brexit debate. The dominant narrative says that Brexit presents a “sea of opportunity” for the fishing industry and hope for struggling coastal communities. A poll conducted by the University of Aberdeen just before the referendum found that over 90 per cent of fishers were planning to vote Leave.

But not everyone in fishing thinks the same. There is an alternative perspective about who is to blame for the difficulties faced by small scale fishers in the under 10 metre fleet, also known as the small scale fleet. In this version, corporate power and some of the UK’s richest individuals have a bigger role to play, as does the neglect of successive UK governments.

“I could not believe the result of the [Brexit] referendum,” says Chris Bean, who usually fishes in Falmouth Bay, Cornwall. The 71 year-old is staying on land today as the gale force winds and rain of Storm Callum rage outside. “It could have gone the other way. If the fishing fraternity hadn't put out a lot of fairy-tale dreams about what would happen, we would never be in this situation. We had people come into the market on the Saturday after the vote saying, ‘I don't know what I've done – I voted to leave because I didn't think it would happen.’ It was like a protest vote.”

Growing up on the Helford River, Bean built his first punt when he was 11 years old. He says he was an opportunist, inspired by the older guys fishing with rods. He has now been commercial fishing for around 47 years.

Bean and his colleagues at Kernowsashimi, the small business he runs, use ‘static gear’ like nets and pots to catch a range of fish and seafood including monkfish, shellfish, crab, haddock, sole, bass and mackerel. Around 70 per cent of their catch is couriered outside the county, mainly to London, as soon as it reaches the shore.

Whose fish? Brexit won’t fix unfair quota distribution and 'Big Fishing'

There is a significant difference in the money made by different UK fishing fleets. According to the New Economic Foundation's (NEF) Not In The Same Boat report, the large-scale fleet has an average profit margin of 19 per cent, whereas the small-scale fleet operates at a profit margin of 0 per cent.

Who gets to fish and where has been a thorny issue in the Brexit debate. But it’s the British government that allocates our quota, not the European Union. Unfair quota distribution is still likely to be an issue once the UK is outside of the European Union, particularly if power continues to lie in the same hands. Right now, under 10 metre boats represent 77 per cent of the UK fleet but have access to less than 2 per cent of the overall quota allocation.

Through the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – the set of rules through which European fishing fleets and fish stocks are managed – the pool of fish available in each sea area is calculated based on scientific advice about fish stocks. It is then used each year to calculate the total allowable catch (TAC), which is split into national quotas. There is not a quota for every species.

It’s up to each government to decide how it distributes this to its fleets. Each year most of the UK’s fishing rights are distributed based on a Fixed Quota Allocations (FQAs) system. FQA holders are granted a fixed share of the UK’s TAC for a particular species. Those who are members of a Producer Organisation – mainly those with larger boats – get individual quotas, while others access an FQA pool managed by the government. Fishers with limited access to quota can buy or lease more, at a price.

Distribution of the quota is based on fishers’ past activity, using a reference period of 1994-1996 – a period during which under 10m boats were not required to report their landings. This system has been widely criticised for underestimating the past catch for the small scale fleet.

“There's so much going on in the industry that I don't agree with,” says Bean. “We’re stuffed for quota. Sometimes we can’t go fishing for certain species because we’ve got no quota. This is all wrong. Our industry is shrinking because of the lack of fishing opportunities for the under 10s.”

The concentration of ownership of fishing access is a big issue for inshore, small scale fishing. According to an investigation published by Greenpeace’s Unearthed unit earlier this month, over a quarter of the fishing quota for the UK as a whole is owned or controlled by five wealthy families. For England alone, they found that more than half (53 per cent) of the quota is in the hands of just three companies.

Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK, said at the time: “Many of these companies were amongst those touting the opportunity to ‘take back control’ of our waters by leaving the EU. They're taking politicians and regular fishermen for a ride, because they know exactly who's in control. And the same politicians who slammed Europe for breaking Britain’s fishing sector are the ones restricting the majority of fishing quota to this handful of wealthy families.”

“The under 10s have suffered because access to the resource, access to fish, has become a commodity, has become privatised,” says Jeremy Percy of NUTFA – the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, one of the groups that represents the small scale fleet.

It’s possible to make millions of pounds leasing fishing quota, without going out to sea. According to Unearthed, one company – which holds over half of Northern Ireland’s quota – “disposed of its boat and earned £7m in a year from its quota while waiting for a new one.”

Whose fish? Why ‘foreign boats’ aren’t because of the EU

The sight of ‘foreign boats’ in UK waters is one that frustrates many, but non UK boats have been fishing there since before the UK joined the European Union, mainly for species that aren’t popular to eat here. Of course, UK boats also fish in the waters of other countries.

One major issue is that UK quota can be sold to companies outside of the UK, as long as they can demonstrate a ‘clear economic link’ to the country. Foreign fishing companies can then operate in UK waters in boats ‘flagged’ as British.

Unearthed’s investigation found that in England around half of fishing quota is held by Dutch, Icelandic and Spanish companies.

The government has said that it is reviewing the economic link conditions to ensure all vessels “produce genuine economic benefits for UK coastal communities dependent on fisheries and fisheries related industries.”

Percy is not convinced. “They've been reviewing the economic link for more years than I care to remember. It seems more to be a get out of jail free card,” he says. “They also say they’re reviewing it in conversation with the industry. Well they haven't talked to us about that.”

A bit fishy – so much for the fishing white paper

In July, the UK government published a White Paper on its future fisheries policy as a precursor to an upcoming Fisheries Bill, setting out plans to “promote a more competitive, profitable and sustainable fishing industry.” Could this offer hope to the small scale fleet if Brexit can’t?

The government has said it does not intend to change the method for allocating existing quota, but that it is considering other options, including a scheme to be set up to tender or auction English quota, for any additional fishing opportunities negotiated on leaving the European Union.

Both Griffin Carpenter, an environmental economist at NEF,  and Percy, say that the supposed ‘windfall’ of quota that seems to be anticipated by the government is unlikely to help small scale fishers unless other things change.

“Guess who that is going to go to. It sure as hell isn't going to be poor under 10 metre boats that are struggling to survive at the moment,” says Percy. “It is disingenuous to purport that the management allocation of quotas is in any way fair or equitable in the UK.”

Carpenter describes the white paper as taking a “light touch approach” in terms of quota and reallocation of fishing opportunity. “The exiting quota shares and how they’re divided among UK fishers needs to be addressed,” he says.

McCallum hopes that the Fisheries Bill could be an opportunity for the government to “come good on their promise of how Brexit is going to deliver for these coastal communities,” by reallocating quota to the small scale fleet. It would only need relatively small changes, he argues.

“Fractions of a percent can be the difference between someone keeping their job or not. If you talk to fishermen down in Hastings, a lot of them are actually living on about £140 a week so tiny amounts of money and tiny amounts of extra quota can have a massive impact on their livelihoods.”

Plenty more fish in the sea? – worsening overfishing

“These local fishers are very often the ones using more sustainable techniques – things like passive gear. They're not towing things through the water, they're just setting the nets. They're not going so far out to sea, so the climate impact is often less – a whole range of things on top of providing local employment back in their home port.”

According to NEF, it’s a “very real possibility” that Brexit could lead to an increase in overfishing as politicians and industry leaders in the UK promise more fishing access and their counterparts elsewhere in the EU promise their fishers that there won’t be any less.

Bean says that although they have many flaws, the EU rules have meant that many fish stocks are now at a healthier level. “Most people say there is more fish now than we’ve had for 10 years – certain species no – but on average, fish stocks are very buoyant now. You can go out and catch the same weight of fish now with the same gear that you could 10 years ago. That's been due to these really quite strong environmental laws.”

A sea of disaster – losing our export market

Like in many industries, there are fishers with serious concerns about how their ability to export may be impacted after Brexit. According to government figures, in 2016 the UK exported £1.17 billion of seafood to the EU, and imported £1.04 billion from the EU.

Trade barriers are a concern for those relying on exports. A large percentage of the under 10 metre fleet is reliant upon export markets for shellfish, crab, lobster and similar seafood.

Carpenter says that the competitive advantage of the small scale fleet is that they just go out for the day, can catch live seafood and send it straight off to be sold – including in Europe. If things go badly for UK trade deals and Brexit, he fears they might lose their edge. “They [the under 10s] don’t see the benefits of Brexit in terms of increase quota share, but they are exposed to the risks because fresh, live lobster and crab goes straight to the EU market – they love that stuff.”

“There are vast numbers of UK fishermen who are reliant on the export of live shellfish for their living. Brexit is potentially anything but a sea of opportunity for them, and could be termed a sea of potential disaster,” says Percy.

Bean agrees: “If it’s a no deal Brexit and we take back our seas as they call it, control of our seas, inheriting by default all the local fish, it doesn't take rocket science to work out what will happen. The European partners who now fish up to our coast, so within 6 miles of our coast… they will get the hump on for sure. The French are notorious for burning lorries, they will just blockade all the fish coming from Britain into the French markets. We’ll be in the situation where we have plenty of fish, thanks to Brexit, but it will be dumped on the home market because they can’t export it and the home market will collapse completely.

“The price of fish now is high because we’re exporting our sole, our hake, our monk, haddock, it’s going overseas and there's a competitive market overseas… if that door closes, or even half closes... it will upset the balance and prices will tumble.

Why those who voted Leave to support fishing are likely to be disappointed

NEF’s Not In The Same Boat report, which explores the potential impact of Brexit across UK fishing fleets, suggests that Brexit will probably create more losers than winners, with the small scale fleet, many of which have little or no quota, likely among the worst off.

It says: “This increase in UK fishing quota raises fishing revenues, profits, and wages in turn for fishers who currently hold significant fishing quotas. The larger the quota holder, the less likely they are to land their catches into UK coastal communities or to employ a UK crew.”

There is no need to wait for Brexit to make things better for small scale UK fishers says McCallum – the government should start now. “In a way, all the hopes are still being pinned on this myth that we're going to be able to take back all of our fishing rights form Europe, which isn't going to happen. There is so much the government can do right now.”

He does have some hope though, that Brexit could deliver something for small scale fishers. “I’m very fearful about all of the risks of Brexit but I can’t help but think that if it was done right – and it’s a huge if there – if it is done right there could be a better deal... Brexit provides that momentum,” he says. “The referendum comes and fishing becomes at the centre of it again. It does provide that hope that there is one last chance at sorting this broken system out.”

Bean thinks that people who voted Leave in support of the fishing industry are likely to be disappointed. He’s not at all optimistic about Theresa May’s chances of getting a good deal – or any deal at all. “Those who voted to leave and expect to see a lot of fishing opportunities happening next March or April are going to be bitterly disappointed,” he says.

Is he worried about his business? “We’ll just play it by ear. Hopefully we’ll not lose any of our good customers because we rely on quality,” he says. “If we have this windfall and get more fish, as they talk about it, it certainly won’t improve the quality… the quality could even go down on what it is now.”

Percy is frustrated with how little he feels the under 10m fleet has been listened to in the national Brexit debate. “The problem we have is that, as we speak. nobody can give us a clear idea of the outcome,” he says. “All we're getting is double speak and lies and half-truths and nonsense from those in power who clearly have their political agendas, which everybody – the public and fishermen – are likely to suffer from.”

“The evidence is beginning to more strongly suggest that perhaps people weren't telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I think the fishing concerns reflect the wider concerns of the general public that, perhaps, all that glitters is not gold.”

About the author

Amy Hall is a freelance journalist based in Brighton and a columnist for openDemocracyUK, writing about the environment, democracy, corporate power and the British state in the wake of Brexit. She is a member of Shoal Collective, a newly-formed cooperative of independent writers and researchers writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism.

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