MPs hoping to reel in a fishing boom after exit from the EU

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 21 Dec 2016

The future prosperity of Grimsby's fishing industry could depend on a decent Brexit deal. But what should that look like? Parliamentary Correspondent Patrick Daly spoke to insiders to find out.

WHEN your football team has a "Fish!" chant, you know your town has a debt to pay to the sea.

Put that with a strong 70 per cent vote for Brexit back in June and the picture emerges – that most people in Grimsby believe the European Union was strangling their beloved industry which the town, and therefore the Mariners also, owed much of its prosperity. Grimsby Docks used to, after all, have more trawlers operating out of it than anywhere else in the world.

But with its fishing fleet dwindling in size in more recent years, could Brexit revive its fortunes?

The fishing industry got more than its fair share of attention during the referendum campaign, with the likes of Michael Gove and North Lincolnshire's Ukip MEP Mike Hookem talking up the boom that could come from being outside of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – the scheme which introduced country-by-country quotas for fish stocks and made fishing waters' free-for-alls for bloc members.

More news: MP's bid to keep fish on Brexit menu is welcomed

The House of Lords has been busy on the topic of Brexit recently, having released a total of six reports in two weeks on the topic. Happily, one of them focused on fishing and the impact it could have.

The Lords' EU Committee notes that there are advantages to being outside of the CFP – mainly that the UK would have firmer control over who could fish its shores – but also stated that the policy had provided a great many benefits, especially in terms of sustainability, after recent reforms.

Using scientific data to determine catch quotas – a tool which has helped the likes of cod, haddock and plaice, return to healthier numbers – should not be lost after leaving the EU, the peers concluded. All-important free trade deals for an industry which regards Europe as a good customer when it comes to importing and exporting should also be fought for to ensure profit margins remain steady, they said.

Crucially, the committee stated firmly that, while fishing is a small industry, its importance cannot be understated for coastal communities.

Lord Robin Teverson, who chaired the investigation, said: "What we are absolutely clear on is that the fishing industry and the coastal communities who rely on that industry should not be overlooked and must be fully consulted.

"While fisheries is a relatively small part of the UK economy, it is of fundamental importance to a great many people in different parts of the UK, from Brixham to Grimsby and Newlyn to the Shetlands. Those voices must be heard in the negotiations."

Grimsby MP Melanie Onn, pictured below left, has stirred up headlines recently after taking it upon herself to hold the Government's Brexit-backing ministers to account over the future of the fishing and food processing industries.

She criticised a trio of Secretary of States – Brexit Secretary David Davis, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Trade Secretary Liam Fox – last week for failing to mention fishing when they met with Norwegian foreign minister Borge Brende.

That was despite junior Brexit minister David Jones telling Cleethorpes MP Martin Vickers a fortnight ago that "the fishing industry is at the forefront of our considerations".

Norway exports a quarter of all its catch to the UK, with much of it coming into Grimsby's food processing factories. In 2015, Norway – which is outside the EU – sold Britain close to £4.5 billion worth of salmon.

Ms Onn praised the Lords for joining her in turning the screw on Theresa May's Cabinet and pressuring ministers to ensure fishing gets a look-in when they sit down with their EU counterparts in the coming months.

"I'm glad the committee has joined my call for fisheries to be a priority for the Government during the Brexit negotiations," said the Labour MP.

"If the promises made by the Leave campaign are to be met, the Government needs to be working with the industry now in preparation for the negotiations."

And Ms Onn said the top ask on the Brexit wish list needed to be securing a free trade deal with some of Grimsby's biggest selling and buying customers.

The Continent enjoys the seafood British trawlermen catch while those on these shores prefer the whitefish haul of European fishermen – an interesting relationship which the single market and customs union catered well for.

"The report makes the point that the majority of fish caught by UK fleets are exported, most of which goes to EU nations, while most of the fish processed and consumed in the UK is imported," said Ms Onn.

"I've said before that it's vital for thousands of jobs in the Great Grimsby fisheries industry that we continue to trade freely with Europe after Brexit, and not see higher tariffs introduced."

More news: Grimsby's fishermen WILL be better off after Brexit - minister

Simon Dwyer is the managing director of Seafox, the company that acts as the secretariat for Grimsby Fish Merchants' Association. He said the key aim for Brexit must be not to place any more bureaucracy or paperwork on top of the process of moving around goods to ensure fresh fish is not waiting to be processed.

Icelandic fish arrives straight into Grimsby to be filleted and packaged but the likes of seabass from Greece and flatfish from Holland can take longer as it travels by road to North East Lincolnshire.

"We enjoy a supply chain that takes three to four days to deliver, as part of free trade and being part of the customs union," said Mr Dwyer.

"What we don't need is the impact of bureaucracy and paperwork that could slow that down."

Mr Dwyer, who has a background in logistics and has worked with the seafood industry for about seven years, said it would take more than just leaving the CFP to see trawler numbers increase.

He said today Grimsby Docks was home to no more than a "handful" of trawlers. Asked whether he expected Brexit to give a boost to fishing numbers, Mr Dwyer said: "We don't know at the moment – it is too early to say. No one is any the wiser."

If it was going to benefit, it would need private investment in equipment and port facilities to back it up, he said.

"There aren't trawlers waiting in a cupboard to be brought out after Brexit," he said.

"That would mean we would need investment in new boats or to upgrade the ones we have, and investment in better port facilities, nets and landing gear and ice machines."

That is not to play down the impact of the industry in the town. Catching the fish might not be the main form of employment anymore but preparing them to be sold to supermarkets – both domestic and foreign – is still big business.

"The key thing (during the Brexit negotiations) is that we protect our supply chain and protect having fresh fish delivered in a normal way because most of what we do is processing related," said Mr Dwyer.

"In Grimsby, we have got 3,000 jobs directly involved in the business and, in the supply chain, up to 10,000 jobs are connected. That's packing, logistics and warehousing. It is why transport logistic companies, big Icelandic fisheries and retailers like Morrisons are based here.

"If we stopped processing fish in Grimsby tomorrow, it would cripple the area. Its importance can't be underestimated."

The industry expert, whose company is also acting as the secretariat for the Grimsby Fishing Vessel Owners' Association, said the industry would also like to see the access to the European Marine Fisheries Fund – which pays grants worth up to 50 per cent on equipment and vessel upgrades – either maintained or have a UK equivalent created.

The Government has so far promised to honour EU funding up until 2020, with Labour promising to go even further in making sure beneficiaries don't miss out. But that raises the question, if fishermen still want the EU's money along almost like-for-like tariff-free trade deals in place, then why are we leaving the EU at all?

The Lords report notes that being outside the CFP means "the UK will also be able to control access by foreign vessels to UK waters". Yet, in the next breath, it concedes that it must be at the "discretion of the government of the day" to determine which neighbouring countries should be allowed to fish in UK territory – to exile big players in the European industry could be very detrimental to securing a fisheries trade deal.

So with calls for access to European money to remain, question marks over whether trawler numbers will rise and doubts over whether being outside the CFP will actually see Britain take control of its waters exclusively, what will Brexit offer in the end?

Eurosceptic MP Martin Vickers admitted that the arguments for and against Brexit within the fishing industry appeared "circular" with countries saying "if you put a tariff or restrictions on us, we'll put it on you".

But the Tory backbencher said MPs must fight to make sure that fishing, despite representing just a small fraction of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is not overlooked.

"It's true to a certain extent (that fishing is not a big industry) and that is why the fishing industry has had a bad deal in the past," said Mr Vickers. "The job for me and my colleagues is to batter down the doors of government and make the point again and again so we are not left out in the cold this time.

"Nothing will be perfect but there will be a compromise. The important thing is to free us from the structures of the EU, to be free to set our own controls, be that on our fishing quotas, limits or a thousand-and-one other things."

The key word there is compromise – Brexit is likely to be a series of compromises when negotiations start.

The industry and the town's representatives have set out their arguments for what they want – but come March, it will be ministers who decide how high up the priority list Grimsby's fishermen, filleters and packaging workers are during what promises to be a complicated and messy divorce.

Let's hope they remember to go one better than last time and actually remember to mention fishing to their European counterparts on the next occasion.

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