The calm before the storm – the fishermen waiting for Brexit

Fishermen are worried about what could be conceded during Brexit negotiations and, with the meaningful vote coming up, their eyes are fixed on Westminster.

by Kira Taylor, Cornish Stuff Reporter

Newlyn looks the same as it always has. The Atlantic sweeps into the bay, gently rocking the boats moored there. The scent of fish rises from the docks and the market. St Michael’s Mount sits further round the bay, offering the perfect backdrop for a postcard.

It doesn’t feel like a political hub, yet the town has been the subject of countless Brexit stories. It’s the perfect angle: a traditional industry which argues it’s been sold out again and again. Once more, it’s a bargaining chip on the negotiating table. And there are a lot of lives resting on that chip.

Fishing was one of the strongest voices calling to leave Europe in 2016. Their demands were some of the clearest: leave the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and make the UK an independent coastal state with control of quota shares and access to its waters.


Yet the withdrawal agreement only makes promises. It is the first step, a hopeful proposal for a future still to be negotiated. And, of course, that relies on the controversial withdrawal agreement being passed by Parliament on 11th December. The problem is few in Parliament or beyond seem particularly keen it.

Dave Stevens is a fisherman from Newlyn. He goes out on six-day trips on his boat, Crystal Sea, catching around 31 breeds of fish, landing it in Newlyn and transporting it to auction in Plymouth. For him, fishing is a family tradition – a way of life, not just a job.

Dave Stevens, Skipper Crystal Sea, Newlyn

He didn’t vote Leave simply because of fishing. A trip to the European Commission made him realise how little contact his MEP had with her constituency: “I wasn’t going to vote just on fishing, but seeing the actual, political way in which [the EU] is created and how it works, it will never work because the power exists with companies.”

Watching from Cornwall, he argues fishing has become political: “It’s totemic on both sides and it’s right up there, way beyond its financial importance.”

For an industry so in the spotlight, Mrs May’s deal isn’t particularly liked by fishermen. Those big questions of access and quota shares are still to be fought out.

Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth and Shadow Minister for Fishing, voted remain, but argues the current deal isn’t good for Remainers or Leavers, saying it’s, “Bad for our economy and bad for fishing. I think at the moment we’re in the worst of all worlds.”

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Luke Pollard MP

The deal fails Labour’s six tests so Mr Pollard will be voting against it. He argued the Fisheries Bill, withdrawal agreement and future relationship have been confusing and contradictory and have made fishermen feel the government doesn’t understand them.

Despite what his shadow says, George Eustice, Minister for Fishing, said the parts relating to fishing did “everything I would have wanted and expected”. This includes protections for the 0-12 mile zone, which he said would give priority to UK boats.

Speaking last month, he wouldn’t say whether he supported the withdrawal agreement, admitting some people were struggling with the “controversial” parts, including the irrevocable backstop.

Since then, he has said he would support a Norway-style deal if Parliament vote against the withdrawal agreement on Tuesday.

Mr Eustice explained detailed negotiations for fishing aren’t in the withdrawal agreement because there was a risk of too much being conceded. However, there are still worries about what concessions will be made.

George Eustice MP

Although at first it was tentatively greeted, the withdrawal agreement is certainly not the control of access to waters and market, and sole access to the 12-mile limit, fishermen were looking for.

Paul Trebilcock is the chief executive of Cornish Fish Producers’ Organisation, which has nearly 200 boats in membership and manages quota shares and represents fishermen.

He said nothing has been sold out yet and fishing still occupies good political ground, so conceding would be political suicide for the Conservative Party.

Paul Trebilcock, CFPO,, in his office overlooking Newlyn harbour

Fishing is a family tradition in Cornwall and Paul, who was sculling punts and catching crabs and lobsters from as soon as he could walk, worries about what has already been conceded, including the decision to push back exiting the CFP until the end of the transition period.

Paul said: “If history’s the indicator, [we were] sold out on entry, transition conceded nine months ago, but still we’re promised that at the end we’ll come out [of the CFP].”

He fears a cosmetic deal – one with all the words, but none of the action. The UK may legally be an independent coastal state from March 29th 2019, but he wants to see it act like one: “Anything short of that will be a compromise. There’s no getting away from what was promised through the referendum campaign and this whole process. It’s payment time for some of these politicians.”

All of this relies on the deal actually passing in Parliament on the 11th. It’s been called “dead on arrival ” by several MPs, who think it simply won’t get the support to move forward.

There are several possible outcomes if this happens. Mr Eustice confirmed there has been a lot of contingency planning for a no deal and he suspects an eleventh-hour deal would be made to ensure trade could still flow at the borders.

Labour is pushing for a general election and, if that fails, a second referendum. Meanwhile, the March deadline is creeping closer and a no deal is dangerous for the fishing industry because it is so reliant on trade, particularly with the EU. 80% of the fish caught by the UK is exported.

Mr Pollard said: “We can catch all the fish in the world, but if we can’t export it and it can’t be competitive when it’s exported, there’s no point in doing that because it will simply rot on our quayside.”

If there is no deal, EU markets won’t completely close to UK boats. What worries fishermen is the delays they may face selling their product.

Tariffs could be an issue, although Mr Eustice said tariffs are low anyway. Non-tariff barriers would also be an issue because the UK would be a third country and fishermen may need a catch certificate and/or a health certificate.

Paul said: “Every day lost in terms of a delay will reduce the price to a point at which they won’t want it. The quality will be coming down. With perishables, time is critical. Significant delay will be significant economic problem – no question.”

No matter what happens on the 11th, fishing will be waiting for its final deal for a long time. It’s not really the deal fishermen want and they particularly fear being trapped in an eternal backstop arrangement.

Dave said he wanted any deal other than remain or the one we currently have. This could be a close relationship with the EU, like Norway has, or a free trade agreement, as Canada has.

Dave said: “All other models apart from remaining are good for fishing – apart from this deal that they’ve got now because of the backstop.

“The facts are is this – before we joined in 1973, 85% of fish in our waters we caught by our own fleet. Now we take 56% of the fish in our own waters. So we get a very poor deal. We’re not asking for the full 100% of the fish in our own waters. What we’re asking for is a fairer deal.”

It’s a waiting game now, like it’s been since 2016. Fishing and a lot of other industries are looking to Westminster and Brussels to see what their futures will look like. And for people like Dave and Paul, it’s likely to be a long time before they truly know what their future holds.

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About Kira Taylor 23 Articles
Political Correspondent Cornish Stuff

1 Comment

  1. 1973 – Tories sign UK fishermen up to policies they hate.
    2018 – Tories sign UK fishermen up to policies they hate.
    You’ve got to admire those Tories ability at getting people to willing act against their own interests by supporting the Conservative party.
    Maybe they’ll wake up one day…probably when it’s too late though 🙁

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