How will Grimsby’s fishing industry look after Brexit?

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 6 Dec 2017

With MPs due to debate the future of fishing tomorrow, Parliamentary Correspondent Patrick Daly looks at the possibilities for the industry after Brexit.

DURING the lead-up to the Brexit referendum, conversations with voters in Grimsby often turned to the same issue – the decline of the fishing industry.

Campaigners differed on how much the town’s industry could recover if Britain exited the European Union, but the general consensus was that fishermen would be better off outside the constraints of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

Along with the Cod Wars with Iceland, the imposed EU fishing quota system is viewed as equally responsible for killing-off Grimsby’s once vibrant industry, with hundreds of trawlers once based in the town’s docks. 

Today, there remain only a handful of trawlers which call Grimsby home – a decline which undoubtedly helped convince 70 per cent of the North East Lincolnshire electorate to vote to leave.

The final deal on a future fishing arrangement is seen as one of the big tests for whether Brexit is a success.

John Hancock, pictured left, a former Grimsby skipper who now works for a Norwegian company importing fish, said: “As Nigel Farage [the ex-UKIP leader] said, fishing is the litmus paper for Brexit. If they don’t get that right, then everything else will be a fudge.”

So, what will change for fishing after Brexit? The two major aspects to be negotiated are how Britain’s fishing waters will be policed after Brexit and what rules will govern fishermen in those waters.

Currently, under the CFP, the fishing waters of all member states of the EU are treated as a common resource – meaning German, French and Spanish fishermen are all free to fish along Britain’s coastline. 

Equally, British trawlers can do the same in other European waters – but the complaint is that UK seas are some of the most abundant on the Continent.

The restriction on how much catch fishermen can take out of the seas is applied via a quota system. Ministers in Brussels enter tense negotiations every year – due this year on December 11 and 12 – to thrash out what the quotas will be on each fish species.

Brexiteers, however, want British waters back under control of the UK government after exiting the EU. Environment Secretary Michael Gove has already confirmed that CFP rules will cease to have effect in British waters by April 2019 – the date the Article 50 notice period ends. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is currently coming up with a replacement system for the CFP, with officials saying they are “working closely with the whole industry, from fishermen to processors, to gather views” on what a new fishing model could look like.

A spokeswoman for Defra said that leaving the EU gave the Government “the opportunity to design a new domestic fishing policy that allows our industry to thrive”. 

But the Government is yet to pin its colours to the mast on how large an exclusion zone there should be, or what management model it wants.

Labour has opened a consultation into fisheries and is asking for fishermen and others in the industry to help them shape its policy.

Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, speaking to journalists last week, said he wanted to look at a “12-mile” exclusivity zone for British vessels.

Mr Corbyn said: “We are consulting on exactly what rights there will be after Brexit. We are looking at a 12-mile exclusion for our fisheries and maybe licences [for foreign vessels] further out.”

The Islington North MP said any future fishing management model would have to be based around “sustainability of fishing communities and the sustainability of fish stocks”.

While many want more autonomy over what happens in UK waters, few are arguing that there should be no restrictions after Brexit on the amount of fish that can be caught.

Owen Patterson, pictured right, a former environment secretary, said a recent conversation with Mr Gove suggested the Cabinet minister was still deciding between adopting a quota system (ITQs or individual fishing quotas) for catches or an effort system (days-at-sea).

Mr Patterson told a Eurosceptic audience in Parliament: “As far as I understand it, [Mr Gove] has boiled it down to either ITQs or the Faroe Islands’ system [a form of effort controls].
“I was under the impression he hadn’t decided on it when I last spoke to him.”

The North Shropshire MP said he would be imploring Defra to carry out pilots of both systems across the country to compare the results before the Brexit deadline.

For all the CFP’s sins, it has borne results in environmental terms. Its catch restrictions have seen popular fish species, such as cod, return from the brink. There are now up to an estimated 210,000 tonnes living in the North Sea in 2015, up from a threateningly-low 44,000 tonnes in 2006.

Britain could continue with a quota system – where skippers are permitted to catch up to a certain  tonnage of a species but stop when they reach their weighted limit – by implementing its own individual fishing quota system, currently used in Iceland and Canada.

Some industry representatives believe Britain should stick with quotas. Their reasoning is that it will be tricky enough trying to pry away from EU regulations without trying to change the management system at the same time.

But quotas have their drawbacks. With quotas being sellable commodities, critics such as Fishing for Leave, a Eurosceptic pressure group, argue it puts control of the industry into the hands of the huge trawler vessels who have the cash to buy-up quotas, while leaving smaller operations with little quota to survive on.

‘Slipper skippers’ are a growing band – businessmen who sell quotas to boat owners so they can go out to fish, thereby making a profit without ever having to step-off shore themselves. 

SET FOR A RETURN? The North Wall of Grimsby Fish Docks, capturing the heyday of Grimsby's fishing industry. Picture submitted by Richard Hunt for Bygones.

With the North Sea being a “mixed-fishery” – brimming with a host of different species of seafood – there exists the problem that fishermen can accidentally catch species they have reached their quota limit for.

A boat out looking for cod (for which it has a healthy quota left) could find itself hauling in small megrim fish – for which the boat might have no quota left.

At the moment, that quota-ceiling situation forces fishermen to throw healthy megrim, caught up in its nets while fishing for cod, back into the sea – normally to float dead on the top of the water – as they cannot land it without punishment. A million tonnes of fish are discarded back into the sea every year in European waters, according to Defra.

To counter this, the EU is bringing in a full-species “discards ban” in 2019, meaning fishermen must land everything they catch. 

But some in the industry fear a discards ban will bring about “choke species” where, once fishermen have caught the quota-limit for their lowest quota species, they effectively cannot afford to fish any longer for fear of bringing up more of that species.

Skippers could be forced to tie-up their vessels despite having hundreds of tonnes of quota allocation left for cod, haddock and other big sellers – all because they’ve hit the ceiling limit on their lowest quota species.

Fishing for Leave gave evidence to MPs last week, appearing as witnesses in front of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, to advocate for a different system known as effort controls or “days-at-sea”.

Days-at-sea gives trawlermen a set amount of days and hours they can fish for, counted as the time they have their nets in the water for. 

The issue with days-at-sea has traditionally been that it creates “a race to fish”, with fishermen targeting the highest value species within their time constraints.

But Fishing for Leave say adding into the mix “flexible catch compositions” would sort this problem. 

FROM ABOVE: Grimsby fish docks, with the Dock Tower on the right

Boats would still be allocated catch quotas but would not be called to throw any haul above the quota-limit back into the water as discards. Instead, they land them and, because they have caught more high-value species than were allowed, are docked fishing time.

They are punished but still make money on their valuable catch, so no effort or fish goes to waste.

Aaron Brown, head of fishing for the organisation, said: “There would be no need for discards because you have money in the bank. You’d have no incentive to go onto.”

Fishermen landing everything they catch would also lead to better scientific data which could better inform the industry on the health of fish stocks, say the pro-Brexit lobby group.

The days-at-sea system is not fool proof – it would require advances in technology and cameras on vessels to measure net soak times, and would need real-time information on the fish being caught while out at sea, all of which would come at added cost.

Griffin Carpenter, a senior researcher at the New Economics Foundation, told MPs on the environment committee that the system was “on the way out around the world” with many countries moving to ITQ models.

Professor Richard Barnes, a fishing law expert at the University of Hull, said it was “not particularly adaptive”.

“In the Faroes where they are using it, they find it hard to change behaviours. We need something that can change quickly.”

Ex-North Sea skipper, Mr Hancock, said he wanted “a little bit of both”, with a mix of both the quota and days-at-sea system in any future model.

But the important thing for him is that it is the UK and not the EU that has the final say.

“There needs to be restrictions and control to maintain the stocks,” said the former Cleethorpes Captain’s Table restaurant owner.

“But it is better to have control in this country than for other countries to decide what happens.”

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