UK fishing industry caught between rock and hard place on trade talks

Boris Johnson has vowed to take back control of the UK’s “spectacular maritime wealth” but at 6am on Monday in Brixham, England’s biggest fishing port by value, there is nervousness that the prime minister’s efforts to defend the industry in post-Brexit EU trade talks could end in disaster.

[Extracts of this FT article are included in today’s Western Morning News]

George Parker in Brixham and Jim Brunsden in Brussels yesterday

Ian Perkes is sitting at his computer screen by the harbour buying sole in an online auction to sell to markets across Europe. He fears that if Mr Johnson allows EU trade talks to collapse in a dispute about fisheries, the industry will face crippling tariffs in its main market on January 1 when the UK’s Brexit transition period ends.

“If the tariff was only 5 per cent we would be killed,” said Mr Perkes, the founder of a £5m-a-year fish exporting company. In fact, if trade talks collapse, the EU will soon be levying tariffs of 20 per cent on key catches like scallops.

The scene on Brixham quayside tells a story of Britain’s emotional but ultimately detached relationship with its fishing industry, which contributes about 0.1 per cent to the UK’s GDP, if processing is included.

Workers hose down boats, gut fish and pack boxes as the sun rises over the south Devon port, on England’s south-west coast — but the fish landed here are not, generally, heading for the dining tables and restaurants of Britain.

According to Mr Perkes, 80 per cent of the scallops, squid, sole, ray, langoustines and other delicacies landed here will be loaded on to trucks and sent straight to Calais and on to markets in France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Similarly, the herring and mackerel caught by Scottish boats are not staples on a UK shopping list. 

The problem, rarely acknowledged by ministers, is that Britons do not much like the fish caught in the UK’s rich fishing waters. To the extent the country eats fish, it is mainly the “big five” of cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns — most of which are imported.

So as trade talks with Brussels enter a decisive phase, Mr Johnson might secure more fish for UK boats but — without a trade deal — will they be able to sell them?

Ian Perkes: ‘If there’s no deal and there are tariffs, we are out of the game’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

Leaving aside processing, fishing and aquaculture, output slumped to just £75m in the third quarter, due mainly to the effects of Covid-19. By contrast, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility reported last week that a “no trade deal” Brexit would cost the economy 2 per cent of GDP next year.

But Mr Johnson recognises that fishing is not just about numbers. Even if Britons are not big fish eaters, the industry has a place in the nation’s psyche; some like to fall asleep listening to the BBC shipping forecast, evoking trawlers working distant storm-tossed waters.

A reminder of that visceral connection with the sea can be seen at the venerable “Man and Boy” statue on Brixham waterfront, now transformed into a shrine to Adam Harper, a young local who died when the scallop boat Joanna C overturned on November 21. Another crew member, Robert Morley, is still missing.

Mr Johnson’s fight for the restoration of fishing rights to UK fishermen after Britain leaves the EU’s common fisheries policy on January 1 is thus highly popular, especially in Scotland, which represents the biggest part of the UK industry.

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has suggested that the EU fishing fleet should accept a 15-18 per cent cut in its share of rights in UK waters; David Frost, the UK’s negotiator, wants to seize 80 per cent of the €650m worth of fishing rights.

Jim Portus, chief executive of the South West Fish Producers’ Organisation, said the boat owners he represented believed Brexit was a chance to redress historic wrongs; he said that France, for example, had 84 per cent of the cod quota in the English Channel.

UK fishing

Mr Portus claims new boats — or second-hand boats — could be acquired in months to take up the extra quota and he insisted that EU consumers would still buy the fish even with high tariffs after the transition period expired. He added: “For the catching sector, no deal is better than a bad deal that sacrifices the industry.”

But Mr Portus’s optimism is not shared by Mitch Tonks, a restaurateur behind the Rockfish chain and the upmarket Seahorse in Dartmouth, who said British consumers would not take up the slack if tariffs were imposed and reduced exports to the EU.

“The sale of the fish is as important as the fishing,” he said, on a regular early-morning tour of Brixham fish market. “You could end up with fish rotting on the docks.”

Restaurant owner Mitch Tonks fears British consumers will not take up the slack if exports to EU fall © Charlie Bibby/FT

He said diners at his Rockfish outlets were gradually moving from traditional (imported) cod and chips to locally caught fish, but the transition would not make up for the loss of EU markets.

Mr Perkes, who set up his fish export business in 1976, is grappling with the paperwork required to sell into the EU single market after January 1 — paperwork that will be needed regardless of whether there is a trade deal.

“It’s a nightmare,” he said, noting that he will soon have to complete catch certificates and health certificates for each consignment to the EU, covering perhaps 30 different boats catching different species.

He has also been warned that each truck, carrying maybe £150,000 of fish supplied by a number of different exporting firms, could be turned back at Calais if all of the paperwork is not in order.

Sean Perkes, his brother, looks up from his trading screen and said that if there is no trade deal there will be trouble at the border. “If the French are losing their fishing quota, they will make life extremely difficult,” he added.

Ian Perkes, like most of the south-west fishing community, voted for Brexit as a means of taking back control of UK waters. “I wish I hadn’t,” he said. “I never looked at the implications of the paperwork. I was brainwashed.”

Tariffs on exports would — he fears — be a catastrophe for his business and the fishing boats that supply it. Barring a radical change in the dietary habits of Britain, he said the sector would be “stuffed”, adding: “If there’s no deal and there are tariffs, we are out of the game.”

Letter in response to this article:

An EU proposal on fishing to get us all off the hook / From Nicholas Cornwell, London NW3, UK