View: Britain's forgotten trawlermen demand answersSir Barney White-Spunner, Chair of the UK Fisheries Advisory Board 12 April 2021
Only a year or so ago our crew – those now heading home from what might be their final trip, as well as those who are already laid off – believed they could look forward to good jobs in a proud industry. Such was the Brexit promise on fisheries. Now all that is left to them is questions. And it is high time the UK government gave them some answers.
Whatever happened to the promise of a Brexit fishing boom? Were our fishermen just misled or is the UK simply not up to the job of negotiating a trade-for-access deal with the Norwegians?
We at UK Fisheries have used every means at our disposal to persuade our negotiators to take the simple and logical step of making continued low-tariff access to UK markets for Norwegian exporters contingent on Britain receiving the Arctic cod quotas without which can be no distant-waters fishing industry on Humberside. There is nothing remotely unusual about such arrangements. In fact, they are an integral part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with the EU that was so proudly struck by the government.
We have told the powers that be about the opportunities that exist for a vibrant and growing fishing industry in the north-east of England – we have even detailed the £100m+ of pounds of investment that is waiting if only the government will listen.
We’re still waiting for a positive answer, and we are at a loss to understand why. What’s the point in setting up freeport on Humberside to stimulate the economy if your first action is, by design or neglect, to eliminate £120m of existing investment and future opportunities for the fishing fleet?
We have had years to prepare for its discussions with the Norwegians. It should have been, to paraphrase the former Trade Secretary Liam Fox, “the easiest deal in history”. But the UK’s approach to all if its post-Brexit fishing negotiations seems to have been characterised by error and neglect.
We’ve mentioned the obvious folly of not linking fishing access with market access – it’s the one card we have left, and it’s one the Norwegians recognise and would certainly respond to. So why don’t we play it?
Historical precedent suggests that the amount of Arctic cod available to the UK is two per cent of the Total Allowable Catch (the sustainable limit set by international scientists) for the Barents Sea. Would Norway really risk tariffs of perhaps 15% - 25% on its £1bn+ of annual fisheries exports to the UK for this? We doubt it. But we don’t know, because the government doesn’t seem to be asking.
In fact, the amount of TAC available to the UK now that the EU has taken its share is actually about three percent. This is still a drop in the ocean to the Norwegians, but if Britain asked for this amount in exchange for access to our market on attractive terms, then the UK fleet would effectively have added 50 per cent to its historical quotas in the Barents Sea, resulting in more investment and more jobs for British fishermen – and an expansion of the UK’s distant waters fleet. The economics are clear. The politics ought to be clear as well.
But that’s not all that’s baffling us. Why did we bother negotiating a good deal on Svalbard cod with the EU, only to completely fail to take up the opportunity? We doubled our take of the EU Svalbard quota in the TCA but now we’re meekly accepting a lower amount from Norway. Why? Is this how an independent coastal state acts? Can the Government really be this naïve, or is there something deeper we don’t understand?
In any access arrangement between states, there has to be ‘currency’ – usually cash or other fish stocks – that a state will use to gain access to the waters of its partners. But the UK seems to have entered negotiations with Norway only after having carefully emptied its own pockets of any currency to exchange for Artic cod.
In the past, Britain’s EU quotas in Greenland have been offered to Norway as currency. Incredibly, the UK didn’t accept them this year – even though Greenland offered them up in return for tariff free access. We can find no explanation as to why.
There is now an imminent danger that the UK team comes back with little or no Arctic cod from the Norwegian zone. We have no more licences to fish off Svalbard, or anywhere else for that matter. So is this the final nail in the coffin of the English distant waters fleet?
All of this leaves us searching for the fishing dividend of Brexit and its fabled “Sea of Opportunity”. And all we find is more questions. Why is the government so happy to abandon the last remnant of an industry whose history dates back generations and which is an integral part of the culture and society of the Humberside region? Why are the policymakers refusing to heed the concerns of our crews and their families, whose optimism gave way first to confusion, and now, increasingly, to anger?
And finally, the most important question of all: how can a fisherman feed his family if he doesn’t have anywhere to fish? Because that’s where we’ve got to.
Sir Barney White-Spunner, Chair of UK Fisheries Advisory Board