By Nick Pelling

As the Brexit deal reaches the age of one month, there are those in the Hastings fishing fleet who feel the need for a far longer sense of perspective. Paul Joy, Chair of the Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society, claims that the fishing industry has been “sacrificed” for a second time for the sake of a bigger political deal. 

He gets up from his chair in his office in the heart of the black fishing huts at Rock-a-Nore and points to a faded map on his wall. It shows British waters when Britannia truly ruled the waves and 82% of Europe’s fish was caught in UK waters. According to Mr Joy, the British government, under Edward Heath, traded away Britain’s dominant fishing position in 1973 in order to buy its way in to Europe, and now Boris Johnson has, allegedly, betrayed it all over again in order to buy its way out. It is a neat irony, but has History really repeated itself so cruelly?

Government ministers, of course, say otherwise. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, described the new fishing deal as “a great deal for the fishing industry”; Michael Gove said it was “the best possible deal”. In addition, the government has sought to ease the “teething problems” (Mr Johnson’s phrase) by introducing a £23 million support package for those who can prove that they have suffered a “genuine loss” at the hands of the mercurial twins, Brexit and Covid. Hastings & Rye MP, Sally-Ann Hart, says that “the scheme will provide vital support for fishermen and seafood exporters in Hastings and Rye”. 

But the new arrangements can be pictured in very different lights. Mr Joy’s main hope was that the government would immediately reclaim British waters out to a 12-mile limit, instead of the six-mile limit imposed by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and not applied to the other EU nations. The British government has, instead, described restoration of the 12-mile limit as an “intention” when the new five-and-a-half year “period of adjustment” expires. Evidently, ‘taking back control’ is, at best, on hold. 

Britain will gradually gain up to 25% (by volume) of the EU’s fishing quota in Britain’s waters over this period. This may sound like Britannia beginning to rule over a few more waves, but the realities are slithery. 25% of EU fishing rights will mean rather less than it sounds, due to the not insignificant rights of Norway and the Faroe Islands fishermen. They get, under separate about 20% of the catch in British waters. If you like slippery equations, it seems that – given that the EU’s quota has amounted hitherto to around a third of the fish in British waters – fishermen can expect to gain a quarter of a third. 

If that’s far from clear, Mr Joy argues that the quota system is in any event a “farce”, because it is so easy for non-British trawlers to pose as British vessels with flags of convenience.

He explains that much of British fish in the supermarkets has to travel to Europe for processing before coming back here. All of this is now complicated by the need for official paperwork and physical inspections as it trundles back and forth. (A story is circulating among Hastings fishermen that a loaded lorry was turned back from France because the paperwork was smudged.) The simple, manly world of fishermen has become that much murkier.

On top of this, some fish are more equal than others. Each type of fish is subject to a different quota. For example, Britain has the right to only 9% of cod caught in the Channel, whilst the French share is 84%. It is an awkward fact that the cod in our national dish of ‘cod and chips’ is not likely to be British at all.

History may not have exactly repeated itself but the problem is, perhaps, that no one is clear what it is saying.

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