Screwed on the way in, screwed on the way out? Fishing is the litmus test of a succesful Brexit

This week sees the annual fisheries debate in Parliament. What will Brexit mean for the Cornish fleet?

Newlyn Fish Market


by Cornish Stuff Editor, Milo Perrin

The exact expectation of the UK government sacrificing one industry for another is what fishing communities across the channel are relying on

“The fishing industry should be seen as the litmus test of a successful Brexit”

A new UK Fisheries Bill was one of only eight policy areas mentioned in the Queens Speech back in June, when the Government announced its intention to plug a legislative vacuum the day after Brexit. The purpose of the Bill is simple, say the government – it will establish the UK as an independent coastal state and will enable the UK to control access to its waters and set UK fishing quotas once it has left the EU. *update George Eustice announced in the debate the bill will be introduced before the summer.

This week sees the annual Fisheries Debate in Parliament – and this year MPs from fishing communities around the country will be desperate to hear a reassurance from the government that the fishing industry will not once again be used as a makeweight for others deals, a sweetener, a relatively little pawn easily sacrificed for bigger prizes in the Brexit negotiations. Traditionally, the annual debate is also a chance for the House to pay tribute to those lost at sea and to the RNLI.

The implications of Brexit on the fishing industry is highly uncertain. The industry is anxiously waiting the imminent publication of the Fisheries Bill White Paper, to see how many of the promises made by the Leave campaign will make it into the final draft.

This is Brexit on a most practical level, where ships will literally no longer be allowed to pass in the night.

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The leave campaign promised total control of the UK’s 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around our coast, or the median line between two countries. They also promised exclusive access to the 12 mile limit which currently has shared access. To the delight of many, the government has been consistent in adopting these policies and even announced in the summer that it would be withdrawing from the London Fisheries Convention, a 50 year old international agreement that allows shared access to national fishing grounds.

The UK’s 200 mile EEZ

Non-EU countries Norway and Iceland are entirely responsible for the fishing in their respective EEZ. This is the norm in international law as defined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

This contrasts with the situation in the EU, where Member States share access to fishing grounds from 6-200 miles from the coast. This ‘shared access and shared opportunity’ has, say fishing lobby groups put the UK at a serious disadvantage since 1973 when the UK joined the Common Fisheries Policy. Although access to these rich fishing grounds is equitable, the amount of fish that you are allowed to catch is not. That does depends on which country you are from.

For example, off Cornwall and south west England, (ICES Area 7) French boats have 66% of the Haddock quota, whilst UK boats can only catch 10%. A study published in January 2017 found that UK boats’ share of the total landings from the 200 mile UK EEZ was less than one-third of the total by weight. By quantity, only one fifth of fish and shellfish landed from the UK EEZ was caught by UK boats. And because of the tendency of Brits to stick to a handful of fish species, which to be frank are at the cheaper end of the scale, the more lucrative catch is left for foreign boats too.  In cash terms, the value of fish caught in UK waters by foreign boats was eight times more than the UK fleet.

The fishing industry have said for many years that these quotas from UK waters needed addressing. The need for a re balance of these figures post Brexit is obvious.

On March 30 2019, the day after Brexit, the UK will no longer be bound by the Common Fisheries Policy and once the Fisheries Bill has received Royal Assent, the UK will be able to set it’s own quotas, and decide who will be allowed to fish in UK waters, and how many fish they are allowed to catch.

Before the referendum, fishing minister George Eustice MP  promised that the UK fleet would be able to catch and land substantially more of the fish in UK waters than at present.  UK interests could not be bargained with in order to “give advantages to other EU countries” he promised.

These sentiments were echoed on the quayside at Newlyn when we visited this week. You won’t find a sense of optimism or certainty amongst the community here though, just a solid determination to reclaim what is seen almost as a birth right. It is clear what the fishermen want, they just have doubts and a mistrust of politicians to secure the right deal for them.   The fear is that fishing rights will at best be lost in the small print of the larger Brexit negotiations, or at worst, once again be used as a political bargaining chip, given away to grease the wheels of another deal.

Paul Trebilcock of Cornish Fish Producers Organisation in Newlyn

Paul Trebilcock of Cornish Fish Producers Organisation, who have submitted a paper to DEFRA with their demands in the Brexit negotiations said “”The fishing industry should be seen as the litmus test of a successful Brexit. The UK fishing industry was badly let down by politicians in 1973. Entry conditions to the EEC included the principal of equal access to a common resource. This denied us all the benefits that naturally flow from being an independent coastal state. We look forward to a new era of sustainable prosperity based on that altered status”

“The most immediate risk is that our fishing rights will be traded away (as they were in 1973) during the exit negotiations from the EU for some other national or political priority”

Danny Downing, who works out of Newlyn on the trawler Golden Harvest described the fear of the industry in more earthy terms “We was screwed on the way in, expect we’ll be screwed on the way out too. You only have to look at a picture of the harbour 30 year ago to see what the EU has done to us. We want our 12 miles back and control of our quota”

Edward Jones(l) and Danny Downing tend to their nets on Newlyn Quay, ready for another trip aboard Golden Harvester

But it is this exact expectation of the UK government sacrificing one industry for another that fishing communities across the channel are relying on.  CFPO’s Paul Trebilcock, who will be headed to Brussels this Sunday for the December quota discussions described the feeling of his counterparts across the channel,

“They are worried too. Their position is clear – they want the status quo. They want the same access, the same quota, and they want they same market access. Clearly we want something different from that but they worry because they depend alot on fishing in UK waters to satisfy their market. If that got taken away from their fleets they’ll face big big challenges. for example there are Belgian beam trawlers catching sole up off the north Cornish coast, which they take heavily from. About 70% of the quota available is taken by Belgian beamers, or the French fishing quite close into the 6 mile near here catching alot of haddock which we can’t catch because of the quota restrictions. They are definitely fearful of losing access to that to be able to supply their demand.”

“Ultimately this will be down to a political negotiation. I was speaking to the French about this in Brittany. I said it’s not a problem, we’ll still sell all our fish here and you’ll still have a job selling fish. He laughed and said I like your enthusiasm but your government sold you out on the way in what makes you think they won’t sell you on the way out?  And that’s stuck with me. He’s relying on the UK government selling us out and they see that as a real possibility”

“Fishermen have always felt that their industry was sacrificed when we joined the EEC” South East Cornwall MP Sheryll Murray told us this week.  “We must have exclusive access for UK vessels to our 12 mile limit when considering any post CFP management regime”.

Mrs Murray campaigned vigourously for Brexit and is seen as one of parliament’s strongest voices for the fishing industry in general. The Conservative MP who tragically lost her second husband Neil Murray in a fishing accident whilst he was working alone on the Our Boy Andrew, 9 miles east of Eddystone Rocks in 2011, will introduce the annual Fisheries Debate in Parliament on Thursday.

“Many inshore fishermen have expressed concern about access to the UK 6 to 12 mile limit by other member states for certain species. There appears to have been disproportionate access to the UK 6 to 12 mile limits for almost 40 years and this must stop. Many inshore vessels are unable to migrate and have found themselves competing with many larger vessels competing in the same waters. We must have exclusive access for UK vessels to our 12 mile limit when considering any post CFP management regime” Mrs Murray told us.


Sheryll Murray MP South East Cornwall


Melanie Onn , Labour MP for one of the busiest ports in England, Grimsby, has said that the ‘Fishing Industry has the most to lose or gain from Brexit”.

Ms Onn and Plymouth MP Luke Pollard have formed ‘Labour Friends of Fishing’ a parliamentary group to call on the Government to put the fishing industry at the top of their agenda during Brexit negotiations.

The Out campaign made some bold claims on the future of fishing during the referendum campaign and Nigel Farrage quickly latched on to the emotive and iconic status of “our waters” and “our land” with great success. The overwhelming majority of fishermen around the country were convinced and voted to leave.

“Leave campaigners came to Grimsby during the referendum campaign and promised that we’d see a revival of the fishing industry if Britain leaves the EU” she told us this week, “Since then it’s barely figured in the Brexit negotiations.

Melanie Onn MP for Grimsby

Grimsby’s MP has previously warned of the possibility post Brexit of a return of trading conditions that led to the infamous Cod Wars of the 60s and 70s. “There’s still time for the Government to prioritise port towns like mine, but we need to see some movement soon. I will be calling on the Government to recognise the needs of coastal communities, and in particular of the seafood processing side of the sector, which employs over 5,000 people in Grimsby and relies on easy trade with the rest of Europe”

“I met the Fisheries Minister to discuss these concerns last month, and I will be using the debate on Thursday to ask him what progress has been made since then. Fishermen will want to hear that the government understands the need to prioritise their industry in order to deliver on what has been promised”

George Eustice, the Fisheries Minister and vocal Brexit supporter will be manning the dispatch box on behalf of the government at Thursday’s debate. He insists the government will make sure the UK will have control of its waters again. “We are committed to acting on the wishes of the British people and we will withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy and put into place a new fisheries regime.”

“As an independent coastal state outside of the EU the UK would be fully responsible under international law for control of waters in our exclusive economic zone and the management of the resources within it” he said.

George Eustice MP (centre) fisheries Minister

A commons report though suggests otherwise. A briefing paper presented to DEFRA in July said “Following Brexit the UK could take full responsibility for fisheries in the UK’s 200 mile  EEZ However, this does not necessarily mean that the UK will as a result have greater access to fish.  In addition, there could be legal arguments under international law about the extent to which the current fishing rights of foreign fishers could be abolished. For instance, Article 62 of the UNCLOS requires coastal States “to give other States access to the surplus of the allowable catch” in its EEZ and emphasises the need “to minimise economic dislocation in States whose nationals have habitually fished in the zone.”

Mr Eustice has admitted to a Commons Committee

“What we cannot say is that we will have an exclusion zone and that no-one can come into our waters. There will be a sense of saying that we will grant some access, but it might not be the same sort of access that they are used to. If you look at the annual negotiations that we have with Norway and the Faroe Islands, the key variables in a negotiation are, generally, the access that you are willing to grant, the share of the quota that you expect to have in return and the total allowable catch, as it were, and the total quota. Those are the three variables. There may be some trading of access in order to get a fairer share, for instance”

The beam trawlers St George’s & Cornishman, Newlyn harbour


Paul Trebilcock has been pleased with the government’s consistent message so far. “At the minute all the rhetoric is good. Here in Newlyn we’ve had visits from Gove, Eustice, Steve Baker, Angela Leadsom and I’ve met David Davies in London. they see it as politically important and perhaps a bit iconic, but can they deliver what they promised on the final day? It’s at the point we’ll find out if the French skipper was right”

He continued “Fishing and farming in particular have received the greatest impact from membership of the EU, be it either the Common Fisheries Policy or the Common Agricultural Policy, so therefore coming out they are seen as the totem of success or failure. Can we actually have a better fishing industry on the other side, when we come out? I hope so.

George Eustice, Micheal Gove and local MP Derek Thomas in Newlyn

Because the deal we received was so bad for us going in, especially for us here in Cornwall and the south west, there’s a high chance of things getting better”

It’s not only the brave men who go out to sea who are counted as working in fishing. In 2015, the industry contributed £604 million to UK GDP and employed around 12,000 people and, as of 2016, whereas the fish processing industry supported around 18,000 jobs across 376 fish processing sites. The large majority of these sites are staffed in the most part by east European workers.

The negotiations about access to fishing  grounds and the trade in caught fish must be treated as separate issues says Sheryll Murray “It is necessary that we have separation of catching opportunity/access and access to the EU market.  These are separate subjects, and Norway has never let them be mixed.  Indeed, there is no international precedent or supporting economic reasoning to link these. For example, if France wants to sell us their cheese and wine, they must buy our fish. This is common sense”


The UK is also a net importer of fish and fish products, largely dependent on imports from non-EU countries (such as Norway and Iceland) to meet demand; approximately two-thirds of imports to the UK come from non-EU countries. However, the UK relies on EU markets for its exports. While the UK has a small trade surplus with the EU in fish, this masks different patterns of trade across species.

“The biggest area of uncertainty as we leave the EU is the area of trade” warned the CFPO’s submission to DEFRA. “As a high proportion of our catches are currently exported to the EU, tariff and non-tariff trade barriers could carry significant consequences that at this stage are difficult to quantify. In the broadest terms we want the freest possible trade with Europe and other markets”

The line DEFRA are taking is definitely to try and keep the two subjects separate. Access and quotas are one thing, trade should just be in with all the other trade. “When it becomes intertwined is when it will become difficult for us” said CFPO’s Paul Trebilcock “and you can see how we could be traded away quite quick. Europe will try to bind them together and that is how they will achieve their status quo”

The Danish fish producer organisation has already stated that the UK should only be granted access to the EU market on the basis that it still permitted access to UK waters. 20% of the fish caught by the UK fleet is landed elsewhere in the EU and a whooping 80% of our wild caught seafood is exported to the EU, with four of the top five destinations being European countries.

You begin to understand the worry from Peterhead to Penzance as the Commons briefing concludes “It therefore seems possible that some form of agreement on continued EU access to UK waters, and vice versa, could be part of the negotiated settlement”


The CFPO summarise what they expect from the Brexit negotiations in four points –

  • Total control of 200 mile EEZ which the UK government alone can then set quotas, access, trade arrangements and regulatory regime.

  • The 12 mile limit for the exclusive use by UK fleet

  • UK to secure a greater share of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) from own waters

  • Trade in fisheries products to be as free as possible


The UK’s new fisheries management system could in large part reproduce the existing EU arrangements. One difference could see a change from quotas on quantity to a ‘effort control’ system where fishing boats are only allowed out at sea for a certain amount of days per month.

The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) that “it is not difficult to see the appeal of an effort control regime”,

A new system is not without risks. The NFFO  conclude that “the system of TACs and quotas comes with many challenges, especially within the context of the landings obligation. But a leap into an unworkable system of effort control could be a lot worse”

Paul Trebilcock -“I’ve recognised that George Eustice genuinely wants to stay as Fisheries Minister and see the job through. And I actually think he genuinely wants and believes he can get a good deal for the fishing industry on the other side of this. Now whether he can deliver that is slightly different. We’re a long way from the final deal but if you asked me today can we get a better deal? I’m optimistic”

And if we don’t get any deal, and we’re on WTO, it’s the non tariff barriers we should be more wary of. On the plus side we’d have all the fish in our 200 mile zone, the down side is we’d have to find a whole different market to sell it to. Either that or get British to eat more fish”