WHEN a flotilla of 35 fishing boats sailed up the Thames in 2016, organised by skippers as part of the Fishing for Leave campaign, they were crewed by fishermen in hearty voice. Joined on board by Nigel Farage, the trawlermen were determined to send a powerful message to Prime Minister David Cameron and his government that they were fed up with the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and wanted to take back full control of Britain’s waters.

After securing victory for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum, they again threatened to send an armada back to London, claiming that Prime Minister Theresa May was going to ‘betray’ them in the Brexit negotiations. Cries of ‘betrayal’ are a standard part of the fishermen’s vocabulary. Boris Johnson was accused of betraying the fishermen even before a final deal had been signed. Now that we have a deal with the EU he has been accused of betrayal over the conditions, including those affecting fisheries exports.

One wonders at the remarkable and misplaced optimism of the fisheries sector. They were told by Farage and the Brexiteers that they would expel the foreigners from British waters, get all the fish to themselves and rake in huge profits. The Fishing for Leave campaign published a report estimating that once we scrapped the CFP, our fisheries sector could make £6.3 billion and sustain tens of thousands of new jobs.

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Like many of the Brexit pledges, it was a little overblown.

More than 60% of the UK’s total catch is landed in Scottish ports. The annual value of landings of around 445,000 tonnes of sea fish and shellfish to the Scottish economy is £600 million. Fisheries has always been of major importance to Scotland, but by the 1990s, cod stocks and indeed stocks of other key demersal species in the North Sea had all but collapsed. This was the reason why the EU’s unloved CFP was forced to introduce endless regulations and controls to try to save the industry. This was the reason why decommissioning schemes encouraged many struggling skippers to scrap their vessels and sell their quotas to foreigners and why the number of vessels and the number of fishermen in Britain more than halved. The CFP certainly had its flaws, but without it, there may have been no fishing industry left today.

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But the concept of a post-Brexit bonanza with every fish in British waters being caught by UK fishermen was never a serious option. Prior to Brexit, foreign vessels from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark and Ireland were catching 58% of the fish in our waters, around 635,000 tonnes annually. Much of the 445,000 tonnes of fish caught by the Scottish fleet was exported to the EU in a seamless process that saw trucks of fresh langoustines, prawns and whitefish given a cursory check at the Channel ports, before racing off to deliver fresh-caught products to an eager EU market. British fishermen were warned again and again that leaving the EU’s single market would certainly mean more border checks, more bureaucracy, more red tape and more delays.

The deal signed on Christmas Eve allowed foreign vessels to continue to have access to British waters for the next five and a half years, during which time 25% of their quota will be transferred to the UK fleet, netting our fishermen an extra £163 million. Boris Johnson also promised a further £100 million sweetener to the fisheries sector by way of grants to modernise ports and harbours, build ice factories and other projects, in preparation for full control of our waters in 2026. But even this deal was decried as a ‘betrayal’.

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Now, with no hint or irony, leaders of the industry in Scotland are raging over export delays, claiming that checks on trucks of fish prior to Brexit took just five minutes, but now take up to five hours! The tortuous delays have led to EU customers cancelling orders, because the fish would be spoiled before it got to them. The resulting glut of fish on the UK market has forced a catastrophic fall in prices of up to 80% in some cases. As a result, many fishermen have now abandoned the Channel ports and are undertaking an arduous 72-hour round-trip to Denmark, to offload their catch. They say it’s the only way they can get their catch fresh into the EU market, while getting a much higher price in Denmark than they can get in the UK.

In an angry letter to the prime minister, the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) stated that they had been led to believe that after we left the EU and the CFP, Britain would, as a sovereign country, “be able to control who fishes in its own waters and should be able to harvest the fish resources in its own waters primarily for its own people.” The NFFO’s anger seemed a little ill-conceived given that more than half of England and Wales’ current fish quotas are foreign owned. In Scotland the figure is slightly under 5%.

Foreign companies that bought UK quota, overwhelmingly from English and Welsh fishermen, did so in good faith as a long-term investment. Their vessels sail under a British flag. They will almost certainly sue if the UK government ever attempts to take it away from them. So reclaiming control over all of our waters and all of our catch was never feasible from the outset. Countries like Ireland and France have barely any foreign ownership, while fishing nations outside the EU like Norway and Iceland, have no foreign ownership at all. If the NFFO believed that Brexit would enable us to kick out all the foreign vessels and seize control of their quotas, they were harbouring a serious misapprehension.

The UK government is trying hard to smooth out the ‘teething problems’ and cut the red tape so that fish exports can get back to something like pre-Brexit normality. Meanwhile the SNP Government seems happy to join the cries of ‘betrayal’ and offer the option of an independent Scotland re-joining the hated CFP. To quote the famous idiom, our fishing industry finds itself caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

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