As French fishermen attack British boats, Richard Price says Brexit will mean tough times ahead for the UK and Hastings fishing communities

Hastings fishermen, along with others around the UK, are beginning to feel betrayed by Brexit. They are coming to realise that they are likely to be worse off leaving the EU… and disastrously so if we depart with no deal.

Recent studies by a leading agricultural research institution – the Netherlands’ Wageningen University – found that the UK fishing fleet would earn much less under a hard Brexit scenario. Last year, a report by The Economics Foundation concluded that any Brexit will have a negative effect on the fishing industry, but a hard Brexit will hit them particularly badly.

Nonetheless, most local fishermen still seem to back Brexit, although I did eventually find one local ‘Remainer’, a fish analyst with Marine Management Organisation (MMO) data. He said: “If there is a hard Brexit, the costs to the fishing industry will be so horrendous that it has the potential to be wiped out from Great Yarmouth to Morecombe Bay.”

Fishing quotas – part of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) to limit the amount of fish caught – are set by the European Commission based on scientific advice on the size and condition of the fish stock.

During the referendum campaign, Environment Minister Michael Gove promised fishermen the UK would withdraw from the CFP. Hastings and other fishermen believed Brexit would lead to the current quota being rebalanced or abandoned and ‘taking back control’ would mean they would be protected. However, under the transition deal currently being debated, the EU will continue to set quotas until December 2020.

Britain’s fishing industry was severely depleted following the Cod Wars with Iceland in the early 1970s. Our EEC membership negotiations in 1973 were based upon fishing patterns prior to that date. Thus most of the quota was given to Belgian, Danish, Dutch and French fishermen.

Ironically, the situation has been improving for UK fishermen even within the EU.  According to fact-checkers,  the UK’s share of the total EU catch grew between 2004 and 2014 – from the fourth largest, 652,000 tonnes,  to 752,000 tonnes in 2014, the second largest catch of any EU country

My interviewee, who asked to remain anonymous, said a hard Brexit will result in hard borders with fisherman finding it difficult to export and imports virtually impossible. Ninety per cent of UK fish is exported to France. Hard Brexit border controls would require full traceability from boat to market. Fish passing through customs will need an export certificate at a cost, HMRC estimates, between £25 and £30. There will also be import duty at the other end – likely to be between 20 and 30 Euros. Traceability means it’s possible each fish will have to be individually boxed – although the exact details have yet to be decided. With increased export and haulage costs, European countries such as France may no longer buy UK fish. The fishing community seems optimistic that they will be able to sell their catch within the UK. But if so, why aren’t they doing so now?

“It is naive of the fishing community to assume that the root cause of their ills lies with our membership of the European Union,” said my source.  “They like to say the fishing community was stitched up by the EU. The irony is that DEFRA did it. The bulk of the quota was given to big boats. Fishermen complain that loads of foreign boats own licences to fish in British waters. But these licences were sold by the local fishing community years ago when they sold their boats.”

Michael Gove was asked during a visit to Hastings about the Brexit White Paper, which said: “There will be a common rulebook for agriculture, food and fisheries products encompassing rules that must be checked at the border alongside equivalents for certain other rules such as wider food policy.” Gove admitted he didn’t know what it meant, although it appears to assume that the UK will exit the Common Fisheries Policy and bypass border controls. Exactly how is not explained in the paper. Gove also said Iceland will loan us three fishery protection cutters to police our waters when we leave. Given the historical context of the Cod Wars this would seem somewhat ironic!

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