World Tunes In To Hastings Fishermen

Paul Joy, articulate chairman of the Hastings Fishermen Protection Society, found himself in the eye of a media hurricane last weekend, as the Brexit negotiations slid towards a no-deal outcome. It wasn’t just the BBC and national newspapers that wanted to know how the small-vessel fishermen (whom he represents) were viewing the stand-off over fishing rights in British waters between the UK and the European Union. He’s been interviewed in recent days by CNN and by Japanese media; even Russian journalists have sought an interview, he disclosed.

PICTURE: Dave Young

And Mr Joy doesn’t disappoint. He has two clear lines of argument which dispel all complexities. First, the UK, as a sovereign country released from the EU, now controls its own waters; second, it should no longer cede fishing rights over those waters to the boats and fishermen of the EU on the grossly unfair terms enacted by the latter’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). “No other sovereign country in the world allows foreign vessels to fish within 12 nautical miles of its coastline – why should we?” he says.

Arguments about ‘historic rights’ of French and other foreign fishing vessels receive short shrift. The reality of the quota system imposed by the CFP is that, according to Mr Joy, English vessels operating in the Channel are hugely disadvantaged – allowed, for instance, to bring in just 9% of the cod catch there while the French get 84%. The disparity is even starker for boats classified as small – less than 10 metres in length. Over 75% of the English fishing fleet comes into this category, including all that operate from Hastings. They are currently allowed less than 3% (in value) of the total catch. The reality of the CFP is that smaller scale fishermen, such as those who man the Hastings fleet, are left idle on home quays and beaches while much larger, foreign-owned vessels sweep up fish within the UK’s territorial coastal waters. 

The total number of employed workers in the UK fishing industry – around 12,000 – is less than the workforce of Debenhams, as more than one political commentator observed last week; it represents 0.1% of the nation’s GDP (though Mr Joy points out that it could be rather more if the CFP quotas are superseded). Are the sectional interests of this lobby really going to trump the desperation of other, overwhelmingly more powerful, commercial interests that fear – and predict – economic disaster if no overall deal is achieved with the EU? 

Well, fisheries are not the only issue still being fought over in the Brexit negotiations as the New Years Eve deadline approaches. And the cause of the fishermen is seen by a much larger swathe of voters as encapsulating the reasons why they marked their crosses for Brexit in 2016 and again for a party which promised to “get Brexit done” a year ago. To these, the CFP epitomises the one-size-fits-all, big-is-best, approach of Brussels bureaucrats that is seen at the same time as promoting other countries’ sectional interests.

What does Mr Joy think of the newspaper headlines gearing up for a gunboat war to protect British coastal waters from 1st January? That won’t be the real campaign focus, he predicts. What’s much more likely is that French fishermen will move to blockade their own Channel ports, taking direct action to stop general trade in protest at the very real risk to their livelihoods.

The immediate consequences of that development would be, as far as Mr Joy is concerned, a matter for the French gendarmerie. He does anticipate, however, that, if the UK leaves the CFP with no alternative arrangements in place, a system of mutual tariffs is likely to be imposed. Since, currently, over 80% of the fish catch brought in by British vessels is exported to Europe and, conversely, over 80% of fish we eat in Britain is imported, that must tend to raise prices and depress demand. But there is another alternative: we could start eating more of our own. 

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