‘Boris is a kipper’: fury and frustration at Brexit fishing deal in Brixham

Anton Bailey had just taken a delivery of a new set of fishing nets and was patiently sorting them on the harbour-side at Brixham in Devon. The skipper, who first boarded a fishing boat four decades ago when he was just three, was feeling a mixture of optimism and frustration.

Steven Morris www.theguardian.com

He is optimistic that when he chugs out to fish for pollock with his fresh nets in the new year he will be lucky and return with a good catch, but frustrated that, to his mind, the Brexit fishing deal has sold the British industry short.

“The Europeans always get what they want. It’s a simple as that,” said Bailey.

His main gripe is that under the deal EU boats will be able to operate up to six miles off the UK coast while British boats will have to remain 12 miles off the beaches of mainland Europe. “How is that fair? We’re not allowed inside their 12, I don’t see why they should be allowed up to our six.”

Andy McLeod, who owns and skippers the Brixham beam scalloper van Dijck, is also puzzled over the six/12 mile disparity. “One thing I did hope for was that we would get the 12-mile limit,” he said. “It should be a level playing field.”

But he is not one of those who feels that every fish off the coast of Britain belongs to UK fishers. “I thought it was a bit harsh to try to cut the rest of Europe off from our fish completely,” he said. “To be honest we don’t have the fleet to catch all the fish. If they suddenly said: ‘All the fish is yours’, actually we don’t have anything to catch it with.”

Brixham bills itself as the birthplace of the trawling industry. It has been a fishing port since the middle ages, but in the 18th century pioneered the use of sailing trawlers, fast powerful robust boats that targeted demersal fish – cod, sole, plaice, haddock.

The port boasts England’s largest market by value of fish sold and this year enjoyed a run of million-pound weeks, with sales of the more than 40 types of fish landed here regularly reaching seven figures.

But, as McLeod points out, most of the Brixham boats have seen better days. McLeod’s vessel was already 16 years old when it arrived in Devon from the Netherlands 30 years ago.

“There’s never been much help for the fishing industry in the UK compared to other countries where their governments back them, give them grants for new boats,” he said. “That’s why our fleet is second-hand Dutch and Belgian boats. They get the grants, run them for 20 years and sell them to us.”

A seal bobbed its head up as Matt Shepherd, at 32 one of the younger skippers, prepared his small boat for a trip out. “You hear a lot about Brexit and the EU all the time. Some are for, some are against. I’m just trying to get on and make a living.”

But it is hard to forget Brexit. On the way into the town a “Fishing for Leave” banner with the slogan “Save Britain’s fish” still flutters in a farmer’s field.

Mike Sharp, the owner of two Brixham beam trawlers, took part in the Fishing for Leave protest on the Thames in London during the EU referendum campaign.

Four years on, he is furious at the EU deal. “I’m hoping the deal gets voted out by parliament. I doubt it. Boris came to Brixham and promised us everything. He’s used fishing as a lever to get whatever he wants. Fishing’s not important to them. I have a fish merchant friend who calls two-faced people kippers. Boris is a kipper.”

The government has promised a £100m funding package for the industry. “But £100m goes nowhere,” said Jim Portus, the chief executive of the South West Fish Producers Organisation. “You won’t be able to replace old vessels with new ones. You’ll just be patching up in the same way we have been doing for the last 20 years.”

Brixham-born Sean Irvine, 61, who has been fishing from the port since the early 1990s, said he was glad, at least, that there had been a deal but he is concerned about the new paperwork that will be needed to send fish to mainland Europe – as much as 80% of Irvine’s catch is exported.

“We’ll be catching the same fish in the same water as the French but we’ll have to produce a mountain of paperwork for it. It seems to me what we have achieved is minuscule when you think of the upsets it has caused in families and communities. All that effort for so little.”