The Fishy End to Brexit

Published on 23 January 2021 at 15:28

We often hear of the 1% or the 0.1%, and even the 0.01% in many sections of our society, most notably income inequality and its distribution often through a Bernie Sanders bellowing voice. Well now we may add a new consequential 0.01% to that list of injustices. By this, I mean the share of the fishing industry in terms of GDP to the British economy which accounted for just 0.02% last year.


This percentage is equivalent to around £437 million while, for perspective, the British financial services accounts for £126 Billion in worth in 2019. This rather insignificant number in comparison to other sectors was the primary reason why the Brexit December Deal almost failed to be agreed upon. 


Despite being an island nation, Britain, eats on average the same number of fish as Austrians do, which last time we checked was a land locked Nation. Even when it comes to the abundance of species that inhabit the British coastal waters, the appetite of the British is highly fussy. Anything that is not cod, salmon and tuna is considered inferior to most British consumers.


These ‘inferior’ fish stocks like mackerel, sardines, pollock, gurnard, sprat and various shellfish are all deeply cherished and sought after by nearly everyone else, especially Europeans. The citizens of the 28 member states of the European Union had nearly 59.3 Billion euro in household expenditure on seafood, with nearly 2/3’s of that being wild caught and not farmed fish. Included in that figure, is the number of fish products bought by pre-Brexit Britain which was estimated around £2.8 Billion with nearly half of that figure being spent on cod, salmon, and tuna.


Even though at one point, ‘chicken tikka masala’ was considered as being the national dish of Britain by a former Labour Foreign Secretary, ‘Fish and chips’ is still undoubtedly the true national favourite. According to the Federation of Fish Friers, British consumers ate around 167 million portions of fish & chips every year.


Cod and haddock make up most of the fish side of the dish, but here is the catch! Neither of those species are caught anywhere near the British coast. The last remaining stocks of cod and haddock come from the Icelandic, Norwegian and Barnet Seas with only around 1/12 being caught by a state-of-the-art British trawler named “kirkella”.


Now here is the slightly comical part, in a recent survey of British Members of Parliament by POPULUS- a polling company-2 out of 3 MPs did not know that nearly all the fish for fish & chips were not caught in British waters. It is unstated what percentage of these MPs were self-proclaimed ‘Brexiteers’ or if they represented fishing constituents.


The “Thin Deal” that Boris Johnson’s Conservative Government and the EU 27 agreed on, nearly sank on the very issue of fishing rights. The contentious issue of catch quota allocations had caused the most fuss, particularly with the British requesting a 60% reduction in all commercial species caught by European trawlers.


This, from the EU perspective, was totally unnegotiable and an unrealistic demand. Though finally agreed upon with a 25% reduction and not a 60%, the deal was done, Britannia ruled the waves, and in the words of the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob-Rees-Mogg. “they’re British fish now, and they are much better and happier fish for it”.


As most readers probably suspect and without surprise, the Thin Deal included a lot more than happy fish. The 25% reduction in EU quotas will be transferred over to the British boats very a process of 5 years with 15% planned to be given over by the end of the year. But while this is happening, EU boats will still be aloud to fish within British waters for the duration of the quota share transfer.


Though within in this quota transfer, 57 out of 90 species of commercial goods for the British saw the increase in available catch. The highly favoured fish species like channel cod which, nearly 90% of its stock is caught by French boats, would not see an increased British allowable catch.


After 2026, The British Government could exclude EU fishing fleets, but by the deal, the EU can in return, introduce tariffs and VAT on fish products caught by British boats. It is precisely on this issue that many in the fishing industry see this as an even worse deal than what the situation was while still a member state.


The Chairman of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organizations called it “a bit of a fudge” with some politicians calling it a “sell-out” and a “cave-in”. The fact now that there is more so called ‘red-tape’ regulation, paperwork, quality-checks, and entry taxes, than there was before due to being outside the EU Customs Union, is too many a “told you so” moment.


In many respects, the EU membership referendum result in 2016 was largely made from passion, a lot more heart than minds, British fishermen maybe were promised a lot more than was ever feasible. Over 90% of Fishing industries labour force voted for Brexit, a staggering figure. These people’s lives are built on fishing, in many cases, the only form of employment in many fishing villages in the UK is around the industry.


It will be just as damaging to Irish fishermen as well for largely the same reasons, the lack of ease to transport will be damaging. There are no easy answers to issues as complicated as this. The EU Common Fisheries Policy is far from perfect, Ireland is no stranger to its rather controversial liberties, but to many in Britain, it is now seen very much as the “devil you know” rather than the uncertain future with the Thin Deal. 

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