'We have been hijacked': fishermen feel used over Brexit

As the reality of leaving the EU takes shape, UK fishermen are bleak about their industry’s future

On a clear day, the fishermen who dreamed of Brexit can still glimpse their imagined future on the horizon. Just six miles out at sea from ports such as Selsey, in Sussex, they track the progress of larger European vessels whose preferential rights to fish in British waters have long been a source of envy.

“It’s sickening to see them from here while we are tied up,” says Tony Delahunty, who finally sold his family boat two weeks ago after 43 years scratching a living along the south coast. His son has gone into landscape gardening, and hopes of keeping others in the industry with the promise of change are receding fast.

For Delahunty’s entire career, a lopsided system of quotas has granted up to 84% of the rights to fish some local species, such as English Channel cod, to the French, and left as little as 9% to British boats. Add on a new system that bans fishermen from throwing away unwanted catch and it becomes almost impossible to haul in a net of mixed fish without quickly exhausting more limited quotas of “choke” species such as cod.

Tony Delahunty
Tony Delahunty Photograph: Zachary Culpin/Solent News

Leaving the EU was meant to change all that. Slowly recovering fish stocks would still need to be carefully managed, but the British industry became the poster child for those who argued that quotas could be rebalanced and rules drawn up more pragmatically to suit local conditions. The tiny domestic industry was held up as the one unambiguous beneficiary of Brexit, a symbol of everything that “taking back control” would be about.


Instead, growing numbers of British fishermen feel they have been part of a bait-and-switch exercise – a shiny lure used to help reel in a gullible public. Despite only recently promising full fisheries independence as soon as Brexit day on 29 March 2019, the UK government this week capitulated to Brussels’ demand for it to remain part of the common fisheries system until at least 2021, when a transition phase is due to end. Industry lobbyists fear that further cave-ins are now inevitable in the long run as the EU insists on continued access to British waters as the price of a wider post-Brexit trade deal.

“The perception is we have been hijacked,” says Delahunty. “That’s the anger on the coast. We have been lied to.”

With Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg already exploiting this sense of betrayal to stage new fish-dumping protests on the Thames, pressure is growing on coastal MPs to vote against the Brexit deal when it goes before parliament in the autumn.

Whether this eventually leads to an unholy alliance of leavers and remainers blocking departure entirely is a speculative calculus far beyond the raw emotion prevailing in coastal communities such as Selsey.

“If anything, it all just makes people more angry toward the EU,” says Delahunty, who is also local representative of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO). “But if your strongest allies are against [the Brexit deal], you have a problem.”

For now, the handful of Selsey fishermen out at sea this week are clinging to the belief that things will get better eventually.

“Hope has been hard this last week,” says 38-year-old John Reeves, as he hauls in a lunchtime catch of shellfish after a day that started at 4am. “You listen to them but you can’t trust them. You will see guys that do lose faith, and that would be sad.”

Fishing boat in Selsey
The handful of Selsey fishermen out at sea are clinging to the belief that things will get better Photograph: Zachary Culpin/Solent News & Photo Agency/Zachary Culpin/Solent News

Michael Harvey, a new dad following his own father into the industry, agrees: “It’s hard work where you can make a good living if you are sensible with your money. But sometimes it’s hard to see a future.”

The problem is complicated by the fact that much of what these men catch is exported back to Europe.

With fish quota hard to come by, inshore fishermen here have increasingly turned to crab, lobster and whelk to make ends meet and 85% of the total shellfish haul is exported. The majority goes to France and Spain, with cuttlefish going to Italy and a roaring trade in whelks to South Korea.

From the 90 lobster pots and 300 whelk pots that Harvey has laboriously hauled to the surface that morning, some of the catch will get to London but the rest is either too expensive or out of step with local taste to find a British market.

“I don’t eat them,” admits his brother Chris as they pick over a bucket of whelks, which are said to taste of rubber if you don’t cook them right. With lobsters fetching a tenner each on the quayside and up to £50-£60 by the time they reach London restaurants, Chris says he prefers a steak if he wants to treat the family.

This makes walking away from the EU without a deal for ongoing access to its consumer markets another worry for what is left of the British industry.

Some would still like to see UK fishing cut loose regardless. A rebalancing of British consumer tastes away from imported white fish and toward shellfish and other locally-caught produce could yet see this cottage industry grow into an artisanal success story.

But for now, fisheries leaders are gloomy. An extended spell in Brexit purgatory agreed by political leaders means even less say over EU policy in the short term. After that, the country faces the threat of losing not just its market for fish, but much else besides, if it does not bow to demand for continued access rights.

“It’s what we always feared,” says Barrie Deas, NFFO chief executive. “When you get to the endgame in the negotiations it becomes a binary choice and economics prevail over the politics. I think that’s what’s happened and it’s really not good news.”

Chris Harvey
Chris Harvey. Photograph: Zachary Culpin/Solent News

“We are in an asymmetrical and exploitative relationship with the EU,” he adds. “We want out of it and they want it to continue. It’s not difficult to see why. The danger is a very brutal endgame in which the trade deal is made contingent on sacrificing fishing.”

For the industry this would be a repeat of history. After the British long-distance fishing fleet lost its access to waters around Iceland during the so-called cod wars, there was little inshore activity to replace it because the nation had grown used to plentiful white fish from the cold seas to the north. This meant that when the government belatedly negotiated European membership in 1973, much of the inshore quota rights in British waters went to French, Dutch, Belgian and Danish fishermen.

Today, the Scottish Fisherman’s Association estimates EU vessels still land 10 times more fish from UK waters than the other way around, including 16 times more mackerel, 173 times more herring and 14 times more haddock and cod.

In the view of some industry leaders such as Deas, these lopsided access arrangements amount to an exploitation of Britain’s political weakness when it joined the EEC that is still being played out today. “If the UK was in west Africa, it would be considered to be a neocolonial relationship,” he says.

But the continuing power imbalance is as much a result of Britain’s co-dependence on the EU for access to its markets – for fish, cars, financial services and much else besides.

Back in Selsey, industry representatives such as Delahunty with most experience of EU negotiations point out that shared management of fish stocks will always be necessary because shoals swim across national waters.

Away from the anger on the quayside, he quietly admits to having voted remain in the Brexit referendum because he could he see the promise of taking back control was not as simple as it appeared. “It was mis-sold,” he confides.


Dan Roberts Brexit policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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