View: Distant Waters Fleet OpEd01 February 2021
Fishing Boat Diplomacy
Sir Barney White-Spunner, Advisory Board Chairman, UK Fisheries Ltd
The UK Government has been rightly criticised for the fisheries deal it made with the EU. The fishing industry across the country feels it has been badly let down, a hurt exacerbated by chaotic transport and customs arrangements that have made it far harder to get our seafood to our European customers, while gaining nothing meaningful for English fishers to catch.
Both fishers and processors are angry. They had been expecting so much more. And the Yorkshire-based distant waters fleet has been hit even harder. At the end of 2020 we were able to fish in the Arctic waters of Greenland, Norway and Svalbard for cod and haddock for the UK’s fish & chip shops. Today we have just one partial licence for Svalbard.
As our state-of-the-art distant waters trawler Kirkella was preparing this week to steam out from Hull and fish off Svalbard in the Barents Sea, I attended a virtual meeting at which Steen Lynge, the Foreign Minister of Greenland, discussed the future of UK-Greenland cooperation. He clearly understood something that until recently the UK government seemed to have missed. Trade deals need to look at relations in the round, and in negotiations you may have to give with one hand in order to take with the other.
As far as the UK-EU deal is concerned, what is done is done and nothing will change for another five years. What we now urge the government to do, apart from quickly sorting out the red tape, transport and customs mess, is to concentrate on the other future fishing opportunities that we can get from being an independent coastal state. Our negotiators have shown their skill and resilience in other areas, now they need to use this to protect the last remnants of distant waters fishing.
Before December 2020 we were often told that the ability of other countries to access our huge seafood markets could not be made dependent on the ability of British boats to fish in their waters. This, we were told, was just not done; the very idea had politicians gasping in horror. This position mystified us much as it delighted our neighbours, countries like Norway, the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland whose economies depend to a large extent on being able to sell their seafood tariff-free in our shops. And then the trade deal with the EU stood this idea on its head by directly trading our right to sell to European markets with the right of EU boats to catch our fish. This has well and truly given the lie to the political dogma that separated access from trade.
Our own fleet must have the same preferential arrangements as we have given to the EU. The deal may be done with the EU, but there remains a huge opportunity for the Government to strike really good deals with non-EU states and repair some of the damage it has done to our industry. These deals need not be one- sided, but if Norway wants to sell us tariff free salmon and Iceland wants us to eat their tariff free cod, then they should expect to allow our boats to fish in their waters just as we have allowed French and Spanish boats to fish in ours.
And then there is Greenland. As Steen Lynge told us, the UK takes 13% of all the fish Greenland catches and a whopping 50% of their prawns – next time you eat a prawn sandwich the chances are the prawns came from Greenland. Yet currently British boats can’t fish in Greenland waters, even though the Greenland government is fully expecting to give us a renewed quota if we ask for it.
We haven’t done so, and the government didn’t even think to include continued fisheries access in an agreement on fisheries cooperation signed with Greenland last year.
As for Iceland – well, we have no rights to fish in their waters at all despite much of the fish in our fish & chips being imported from Icelandic boats. And then there is the Falklands. Why should the British taxpayer not benefit from UK vessels being allowed to operate in the Falklands bountiful fisheries, as the Spanish do, when we collectively pay for the islands’ defence?
There is real opportunity here – both for the government to repair some of the damage it has done to fishers and to set the British distant water fishing industry on a new course. With new fishing opportunities will come new investment in boats and jobs in Hull and around the Humber; for every job on a boat comes multiple employment opportunities in the processing, logistic and retail sectors. It is there for the asking. But will the negotiators in Defra and the Department of International Trade actually work together to ask for what should be ours by right? Now we know that trade and access are linked, there’s nothing stopping them.
Some of the crew on board Kirkella, on her current passage to Svalbard.