With little in the way of heavy industry or high-tech jobs—GDP is just 61.2% of the national average—Cornwall’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism, farming, and especially fishing. The United Kindgom’s fishing fleet, and Cornwall’s in particular, have long felt aggrieved by what they see as restrictive limits and quotas imposed from Brussels, a feeling that goes back to when the UK first joined the EU in the late 1970s.
Such is the passion around fishing that during the Referendum campaign, Leave stalwarts, led by Nigel Farage, sailed a fishing boat on the Thames past the Houses of Parliament to make their point, (They were quixotically pursued and harangued via loudspeaker by a Remainers’ barge, captained by Sir Bob Geldof.) The resulting maritime melee became known as the Battle of the Thames.
But the idea of lifting limits on catch quotas and establishing full sovereignty over UK territorial waters caused many fishermen in Cornwall to place their cross in the Leave box on June 23, 2016, despite the region and in some cases the actual fishing industry itself benefiting from EU development cash in the past. The issue is complex, but at the heart of it all is the human desire for fish on our plates. And to understand why Cornwall in particular is at the forefront of this battle, you first have to look at a map.
Thanks to its long continental shelf, the waters of the south west coast of Britain offer some of the best fishing grounds in the world. Deep, but not too deep, the area is home to species such as megrim, hake, lemon sole, mackerel, haddock, cod, and skate, as well as crustaceans such as crabs, prawns, and lobsters.
‘Area VII is much more contested because that’s where the inequality is,’ says Cornish fisherman Nathan de Rozarieux. ‘Here in the south west, we have a different ecosystem than, say, the North Sea … it’s much more mixed and complex. Not only that, it contains lots of high-value fish, but UK fishermen only get access to a small percentage of that.’
De Rozarieux skippers the 21-foot (6.4-metre) Tegen Mor II (the name means ‘precious sea’ in Cornish) from spring to autumn – handline fishing for mackerel or potting for lobster. When not out at sea, he does consultancy for others in the fishing industry. His most valuable catch are crawfish, also known as spiny lobsters. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen one sold in the UK. All mine go through a wholesaler and off to the continent, where they fetch up to €50 a kilo.’ If de Rozarieux were to lose access to that market, he’d be lucky to get a tenth of that; there’s just not the demand in the UK.
‘From most fishermen’s point of view, there’s two issues: “What price can I get for what I catch?” and “Where can I catch it?”’ Like everyone else, de Rozarieux is second-guessing what will actually happen now that Article 50 has been triggered. ‘My view is that we’ll end up with something similar to what we have now, with some elements brought over from the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The worst deal for everyone is we lose access to the common market, but still remain within the CFP. That would be a disaster.’ Fish, as you’d expect however, don’t respect borders or zones, but instead constantly move. ‘I think we’re going to have to have some sort of working relationship with NGOs and the remaining EU fleet,’ he adds.
De Rozarieux’s views are echoed by Andy Wheeler from the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation, based in Newlyn. ‘The uncertainty that Brexit throws up is a real problem. But there are even differences within the industry depending on where you fish and where your market is. The boats that fish Area VII – that would include boats from here, Devon, Wales, maybe even the Irish to a certain extent – got a relatively low share of the quota when it was carved up.’
The feeling amongst many in the south west fishing industry is that the North Sea fleet’s needs were prioritised when the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community in 1973. This was a time of conflict and uncertainty; from the Cod War with Iceland, to the Cold War with the USSR, minds were focused on the larger ports of Peterhead, Hull, and Grimsby, where even today, much larger volumes of fish are landed compared to ports such as Newlyn. North Sea cod and haddock are needed to supply Britain’s 10,000 independent fish-and-chip shops, as well as fish processors who supply supermarkets. Last year, 10 times the amount of fish was landed in Peterhead, Scotland, (145 thousand tonnes) than in Newlyn (14 thousand tonnes).
One thing nearly all UK fisherman agree on wherever they are: The CFP isn’t fit for purpose. At its heart, the CFP was an attempt to manage fish stocks in EU waters based on set quotas for different species. These quotas are determined yearly by the Commission based on scientific data.
‘The scientific advice on haddock here in Area VII, for example,’ says Andy Wheeler, ‘is that the overall size of the stock is not big enough. And so to reduce the amount of fish being caught, a quota is in place.’ But quotas and catch are two different things. ‘A quota doesn’t mean you’re not going to catch it,’ notes Wheeler. ‘It just means you’re not going to land it, and that brings in the problem of discard.’ No one wins when fish are thrown over the side, dead – least of all the fish.
‘Our boats are going out and doing all they can to not catch haddock, but the haddock are everywhere, and they can’t always avoid catching them. So they’ll reach a situation where they’ve caught the 200 or 300 kilos they’re allowed to catch, and the rest has to get thrown away. That’s one of the core principles of the CFP that every fisherman doesn’t like, and why many voted to leave.’
I last visited Newlyn in 2008. Today, it looks much the same as it did then. The fish auction takes place in a large, perfunctory, concrete, box-like building by the side of the quay. Over the road are two post-World War II buildings in a poor state of repair that are used for training and meetings.
‘We’re meeting here Monday to see if we can get European funding to replace these buildings,’ says harbour master Rob Parsons, who got the role three years ago after a career in the Royal Navy. ‘I took over a fishing port, and one of the first things I’ve had to deal with is Brexit. The passion that these these guys voted “out” for has been building for so many years. They feel that Europe is such that it’s been taking and taking and taking, and they’re losing the industry.’
I point out the irony of applying for EU funding in a post-Referendum world. ‘It does seem strange for an area that relied so much on funding from the EU, that we have voted out,’ admits Parsons. ‘But it’s happened, and we need to exploit that funding while it’s still there. We have to have European funding for capital expenditure for things like these buildings.’
But how do those that work the seas feel about the Referendum result? ‘Those that voted “out” are chuffed, while those that voted to Remain are accepting I would say, because now they know. It’s not because they think the funding won’t come anymore, because the funding is money we’ve put in anyway.’ Parsons continues, ‘People realise now that it’s an opportunity, and I just hope we can work together and find out where the money’s coming from in the future, rather than just say “Well, we’ve lost it now.” Because it always came from Europe [in the past], it doesn’t have to come from Europe.’
As for the future, Parsons is optimistic. ‘Most of my job with the Commission is now working on a post-Brexit pitch to make sure we get Government funding to invest in ports, as we are the economic driver for the entire region. I think most people now are accepting, and we’ve just got to go with it.’
Much as we all might love the salty sea dog image of fisherman plucked straight from a Daphne du Maurier novel, the fact is that this is a modern, multi-million-pound industry. Mark Greet is the CEO of Redruth-based Falfish, which is the largest seafood processor in Cornwall.
He has a number of concerns around the impact of Brexit on his £35-million-a-year business. ‘I think there’s some opportunities with access to better quotas, and the establishment of an exclusive 12-mile [19-kilometre] offshore limit—those are the potential upsides,’ he tells me. ‘The watchwords for us are, “Will we still have access to a tariff-free trading zone within Europe?” and secondly, “Is there still access to our very important European work force?”’ With over 200 staff, a significant amount of which are from the EU, any limits to those workers’ movement would make recruitment difficult.
‘Our customers are UK and European supermarkets, and around 40% of our finished produce goes to Europe, with an equal split between France, Spain and Italy,’ says Greet. ‘Clearly any restriction to that market would severely impact the business.’
What happens next? Well, like many other industries dealing with Brexit, everyone connected to fishing is indulging in huge amounts of sabre rattling. In early March, the European Parliament’s fisheries committee said it would be ‘unacceptable’ to give the UK’s seafood producers free access to EU markets, if boats from the continent no longer had access to British fishing grounds. While in the UK, action groups like Fishing for Leave have made statements to the House of Lords, and have drawn up 14 key points they believe must form UK fisheries policy with the EU, and that a version of the CFP cannot become UK law.
So a mix of uncertainty, expectation and, perhaps, just a little hope as to what Brexit will mean for this industry in Cornwall. But for the fishermen, there is also real anger going back years, and no amount of transport upgrades or university campuses soothe that pain. At the moment, with no one quite sure what is going to happen, most see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to, as in the words of the Leave campaign, ‘take back control’. Unlike the rest of society, where the Leave/Remain vote was roughly even, a 2016 survey of fishermen found that over 92% would vote to Leave.
It’s clear that the current system isn’t working for those that make their living from the sea. Despite the volume of their complaints, however, fishing employs just 11,000 people in the UK, mostly in Scotland; by comparison, the steel industry employs over 28,000. As when the UK joined the EU, there are those that feel the fishing fleet is an expendable pawn in the protracted food and farming negotiations with the Commission. To paraphrase Walter Scott’s Scottish housewife haggling over the price of fish in The Antiquary, ‘It’s no’ fish ye’re negotiating over, it’s men’s lives.’
This story is part of the Culture Trip Special: Limits collection.