‘We’ll be shafted’: amid EU trade talks, there’s little optimism at Brixham harbour

If not by the French…….. An early Christmas quiz: What caught Owl’s eye in this article? Hint it’s all in the name of a trawler and remember quotas and the “Nina May”

Steven Morris www.theguardian.com 

Even before the sun rose, the harbour-side of Brixham, which bills itself as the birthplace of the trawling industry, was bustling.

Fishermen, market workers and merchants were busy with their early morning tasks, landing, preparing, and auctioning off gleaming hauls of dover sole, monkfish and scallops.

But in the background, thoughts of the Brexit negotiations taking place hundreds of miles away in London and Brussels were hovering.

“I wish they’d get on and get it sorted,” said Dave Brown as he unloaded a catch of bass from his boat, The Thankful. “This could be a really significant moment for our industry. We want our waters and our quotas back.”

Brown has worked from this famous old Devon port for 40 years. He does not feel fishermen from mainland Europe should be barred completely from British waters. “There’s got to be some compromise but it’s just not fair at the moment.” Is he optimistic a favourable deal will be reached? “Not very, to be honest.”

In truth, there was precious little optimism at the harbour. The most common responses – accompanied by a variety of colourful expletives – were variations on: “We’ll be sold down the river again” or “We’ll be shafted, we always are.”

The mood in Brixham is not helped by a tragedy. Local man Adam Harper, 26, was one of two fishermen who died when the boat the Joanna C sank three miles out to sea last month.

“That is a reminder of the human cost of fishing,” said James Walsh, who manages the fishmonger at Rockfish on the harbourside.

Jamie Walsh: ‘I’d just like to see a fairer deal for the fisherman.’ Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

“I’d just like to see a fairer deal for the fisherman. We should have a better share of our waters. We’re happy to share but the split needs to favour us more than them. At the moment they [boats from mainland Europe] have free roam and are taking money out of British pockets.”

Brixham has been a fishing port since the middle ages and in the 18th century pioneered the use of sailing trawlers, fast powerful robust boats that targeted demersal fish – cod, sole, plaice, haddock.

In more recent decades the industry has shrunk and the seafood sector, which includes fishing, aquaculture and processing, represents only 0.1% of the UK economy.

But in places such as south Devon it is still hugely important and Brixham is England’s largest market by value of fish sold. This autumn the port enjoyed a run of million-pound weeks, with sales of cuttlefish, scallops and more than 40 types of fish regularly reaching seven figures.

Mike Sharp, the owner of two Brixham beam trawlers, said this was the simple reason why the French and other nations were so keen to maintain excellent access to British waters.

“From Dover to the Isle of Scilly we have the best fish in the world,” said Sharp. “That’s why the French are kicking off so much.”

“We want what I think Boris is trying to achieve – full sovereignty of our waters. Once we have that we can have a yearly agreement to decide who can come in and swap that with the French for access to their waters.”

Sharp, who took part in the pro-Brexit flotilla protest on the Thames in London during the EU referendum campaign, said he is not worried by the prospect of no deal. “I don’t mind if it breaks down. I don’t think that will be bad for fishing at all.”

But compromises have been floated, such as a transition period or taking some fish – for example, pelagic species such as herrings and tuna – out of the negotiations.

Barrie Deas, the chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, the body representing fishermen in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, said the industry was opposed to a transition period that has been mooted with reviews at the end of three, five, seven or 10 years.

“Justice deferred is justice denied,” he said. “The industry feels that it’s been in a relationship with the EU that has worked systematically to its disadvantage for 40 years, so there’s not really a huge sympathy or appetite for extending anything that looks like being tied into the common fisheries policy.”

Deas added that the industry will be looking to see the detail of the quota arrangements and that reports that the EU had offered to hand up to 18% of fish caught in British waters back was “meaningless” as there were quota shares for 140 different fish species.

“Behind every stock, there’s a story, behind every quota, there’s a story, there’s a community,” he said.

One crucial factor haunting Brixham, however, is that the EU is its largest customer with more than 70% of its catch exported to France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain.

Trevor Sclater, the skipper of Brixham’s newest and biggest beam trawler, Georgina of Ladram, is a rare beast – a anti-Brexit fisherman prepared to speak about it.

“I’ve been anti-Brexit from the start,” he said. “I think it’s disgusting what we’re doing.”

Sclater is for equality. “It should be a level playing field. If we have to stay outside the French 12-mile limit then they should stay outside ours. But, he argues, the industry worked well before Brexit. “We fished, we made a living. Why fix something that isn’t broken?”

He fears that if boats from mainland Europe are banned from fishing off the British coast, countries such as France will stop accepting the fish caught by UK boats.

“I can see on 2 January us not being able to sell our fish. We shouldn’t be putting gateways between ourselves and our nearest neighbours. That’s crazy.”