Will our fishermen catch a break at last from Brexit vote?

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 14 Mar 2018

With the Fisheries Bill delayed, Parliamentary Correspondent Patrick Daly spoke to those in Grimsby’s fishing industry about the impact Brexit could have.

THE story goes that back in Grimsby’s heyday, trade was so booming that a fisherman could walk across the length of the tied-up trawlers to cross the town’s docks.

Grimsby continues to be a name synonymous with fish – as the Grimsby Town football fans’ chant testifies. In fact, my local south-east London chippy still proudly bears the slogan outside its premises: “Daily fresh fish from Grimsby”.

But any visitors expecting to see huge catches of fish being hauled from boats along the dockside next to Grimsby Fish Market will be sadly disappointed. 

When I visited on a frosty morning last month, all that remained of the once 700-strong fleet from its 1950s peak were a couple of crabbing boats and maintenance vessels for the offshore wind industry. 

Long-distant trawlers still come into Grimsby loaded-up with frozen fish but they are shipped straight off to buyers who have often paid for them en route.

And with the Jubilee Fishing Company’s fleet being sold last year, there are no longer any Grimsby-based vessels docking at the fish market. What is on sale is mainly imported Icelandic and Norwegian fish with a smattering of catch – species such as skate, hake, plaice and John Dory – hauled in by Scottish and Irish fishermen at Peterhead on Scotland’s east coast and driven by road to Grimsby.

Trawlers lined up in Grimsby’s heyday

Sales remain strong at the market with local seafood processors – those making fish fingers and other plate-ready meals for restaurants and supermarkets – still calling in a few times a week. 

During my morning’s visit, good quality Rockall haddock, with its bright eyes and red gills, was being sold for £3.45 a kilo – £175 per 50kg box. Large cod was shifting for £3-a-kilo.

But the decline in the catch is clear, even in the last decade. Ten years ago, a Monday morning – the market’s busiest day – would have seen 8,000 boxes laid out for fish sellers to peruse. Now that figure, according to Operations Coordinator Danny Payne, is closer to 2,700 boxes on average. On the Thursday I was there, 800 boxes had been handled and graded while, in comparison, Peterhead handled closer to 6,000 on the same day.

Read more: Plans progressing for cluster-boosting National Aquaculture Centre in Grimsby

Yet, despite the downturn, there is belief amongst some on the south bank of the Humber that Brexit offers a chance to change the current malaise and bring life back to Grimsby dock. It involves taking control of British waters and its fish quota, offering out that restored quota to UK-owned boats and investing in boat-building and training once again.

The problem the industry faces at the moment is it doesn’t know what the new climate for fishing will be given the expected Fisheries Bill is stuck in a traffic jam of Brexit legislation. 

A proposal (known as a white paper) was expected before Christmas but it is now mid-March and there is still no sign of a plan from ministers.

Neil Parish MP, chairman of the Commons’ Environmental Committee – which has been investigating future management models for UK fishing after Brexit – has accused the Government of “dragging its heels” over announcing a UK fisheries policy and has called for “clarity as soon as possible”.

That is because, when it comes to fishing, the UK holds a major trump card in the Brexit divorce negotiations. The waters around the British Isles are buoyant with a mix of fish species – a valuable resource that European Union member states want to continue to access.

Grimsby Fish Market

In her pre-trade negotiations speech at Mansion House two weeks ago, Theresa May confirmed that “no precedent exists” in any free trade deal in the world for the sort of access Brussels negotiators want to UK fisheries.

But UK ministers have hinted they want to play hardball with Brussels. Fishing Minister George Eustice said he wants to take control of the 200-mile coastline around the UK (as recognised by international law) and make the Government masters of any fish quota inside that limit by pulling out of the Common Fisheries Policy – a position supported by the Prime Minister.

It is that increase of catch for British trawlermen – taken off fishermen from countries such as Denmark, France, Spain and the Netherlands– that John Hancock, a former long-line skipper from Grimsby, thinks will allow local fishermen to make a profit once again.

“If you take back control and hand the fish in UK waters back to UK fishermen, instead of having 13 per cent [of the allowed catch in those seas], you will have 70 per cent – you are looking at a five-time increase,” said Mr Hancock.

“They [EU fishermen] don’t seem to understand that they have had the full run of our waters at the detriment of our industry. They have what they have because of the sacrifices made by the British fleet.”

Read more: Theresa May reveals EU wants never-done-before deal to continue fishing UK waters

Mr Hancock, now managing director of Charisma UK Ltd, a major Norwegian frozen fish importer, said there could be a small fleet of trawlers operating out of the Humber if there was investment in skills and boat building. Courses to learn how to become skippers or operate as deckhands – once run by the defunct Grimsby Nautical College – are no longer available locally anymore but yet they exist in Scotland and Ireland, with the Irish government assisting with funding. 

Having more trawlermen would have “benefits” beyond the industry, said Mr Hancock, who remembers in his lifetime seeing 400 trawlers land into Grimsby on a regular basis.

“For every man at sea there are 10 onshore,” he said, when I caught up with him at his Cleethorpes office.

“You have the filleters, lorry drivers, boat builders, welders, the companies supplying the ice – a long list of jobs. They say the UK fishing industry is worth £750m to the UK economy – about 0.5 per cent of GDP – but it is actually worth closer to £6bn when you take the onshore side of things into account.

“When you have that kind of operation back in coastal communities, then the whole community benefits – the money trickles down. There will be more jobs and more investment. Coastal towns now are just ghost towns, with their marinas used as parking lots for yachts.”

When I spoke to Martyn Boyers, chief executive of Grimsby Fish Market, he said his operation would be able to handle any uplift in landings if trawlers were to return to the Humber. However, he said any increase in fresh fish coming into the market was more likely to be due to tight restrictions placed on foreign-owned British quota, rather than from having more locally-owned trawlers. 

Martyn Boyers, chief executive of Grimsby Fish Market

Some in the industry want guarantees that any UK fish quota sold to foreign vessels will have to be landed at a UK port as part of a “reciprocal” arrangement after Brexit.

“There are quite a number of vessels which are Grimsby-registered but are foreign owned [fishing in the North Sea],” said Mr Boyers, speaking to me as he watched over the morning’s auction.

“It might be an option that they land in the UK and that we could handle their vessels – and we are geared up for that. We have the capacity to deal with any increase in demand.”

With 90 per cent of Grimsby’s fish coming from either Norway or Iceland, it is the Customs Bill – or the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill to give its official title – that the fish market is keeping an eye on.

Read more: Pro-Brexit fishing lobby is divided and at war with itself just at the point when Grimsby needs it most

But when it comes to landing fish in Grimsby – once said to be the busiest port in Europe – Mr Boyers said he is not expecting a long line of trawlers queuing to enter the docks after the UK leaves the EU.

“I can’t see there being a gold rush,” he told me during my February visit. “I could see an opportunity for one or two more vessels but on a very low basis – Grimsby’s fishing scene is not what is used to be. It is not going to return to the good old days. I don’t think it will be anything like it was but there is room for improvement.”

Even more pessimistic is Danny Normandale, pictured right,  a Barton-upon-Humber-based fisherman who owns a three-boat fleet that still fishes out of Scarborough for a host of species, including cod, haddock, coley, ling and monkfish.

The 46-year-old owner of SH90 Ltd said the cost of setting-up a fishing operation had become prohibiting for young skipper-hopefuls.

SH90 has 70 tonnes of quota for cod which Mr Normandale said he had valued at £1.45m last month. On an eight-day trip, one of his 28m sterntrawlers brings in about 50 tonnes meaning even he is forced to rent more quota to keep fishing.

“The industry has been lost to England,” said Mr Normandale, the eighth-generation of his family to become a fisherman. “If you wanted to operate the Jubilee Quest for example [the former Grimsby-registered vessel now based in Peterhead], for that 72ft boat to fish all-year-round and not rent any quota, you would need £4m worth of quota,” said Mr Normandale.

“How many people in Grimsby have the money to go and set that up? They don’t.”

The Yorkshireman, who has been fishing since he was 13, says getting young people into the industry has been a struggle. The boat he currently has out on the water is trawling around the Shetland Islands and in Norwegian waters with a Scottish skipper and mate, with mainly Filipinos taking the remaining six deckhand places.

“You can’t get young people that will work the hours we used to,” he said.

“If you employ people now, one of the first things they ask is: ‘Do you have Sky TV?’ or ‘Have you got the internet?’. And then, when they find out we do, they say, ‘Okay, I guess I will come then’. They think they are doing you a favour.”

With high prices for quota, a boat building industry that has almost entirely disappeared, and more attractive job offers elsewhere, Brexit will be no magic wand for Grimsby’s near-extinct fishing industry.

But the industry is waiting – and hoping – that something can be done to turn its fortunes around and encourage a spawning of trawlers at Grimsby’s barren docks.



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