By Jim Portus, South West Fish Producers Organisation
I have been fortunate enough over the last three decades to witness many wonderful industry investments and developments, such as the launch of many new fishing boats including ‘Carhelmar’, ‘Sara Lena’ and ‘Constant Friend’.
The port of Brixham now has a wonderful, state-of-the-art fish market, with the daily auction now conducted on the ‘Cloud’.
The grand opening by the Princess Royal of the market was one of many moments of pride for this, the top fishing town in England.
Another notable occasion was the Royal tour of the beam trawler ‘Barentszee’ by Prince Charles.
Brixham, Newlyn, Plymouth and Shoreham are the top four fishing ports of England, all with fantastic facilities to handle great quality fresh fish from the Channel fisheries.
Some readers will no doubt say that these major port infrastructure projects, and new-build boats were each part-funded by the European Union fisheries funds, so why is the industry so anti-EU and pro-Brexit?
It is a complex subject, but it is worth noting that the UK never gained more funds from the EU than was contributed.
The history of the UK membership of the European Community, latterly European Union, is well documented, so is not repeated here.
Many would not realise, however, that fisheries access was not a part of the draft UK Accession Treaty until only six hours before the UK engaged in negotiations.
The Norwegians refused the terms that demanded ‘equal access to a common resource, without discrimination’, but the UK, disgracefully, described the fishing industry as ‘expendable’ and signed the Treaty.
To comply with the terms of joining the EEC, the UK agreed to cap its fishing fleet to 1971 levels.
The brakes, however, were not applied until the mid-1980s, by which time the fleet had grown significantly.
The subsequent decommissioning schemes impacted mostly the ‘distant water’ ports of Fleetwood, Milford Haven and Hull that are now ‘ghost’ fishing towns.
The feelings of antipathy towards the EU grew in our fishing ports from the resentment of being ‘expendable’ and thrown to the scrap-heap along with the boats.
Campaigns to reverse the decline were supported by all fishing communities.
The ‘Save Britain’s Fish’ rallies involved fishermen from all over the country uniting with one common enemy, the Common Fisheries Policy.
The referendum in 2016 was a last ‘Hurrah!’ as boats, including from Brixham and Plymouth, sailed up the Thames.
The UK fishing industry considered the vote to ‘Leave’ a victory, but the terms of a new UK / EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement appear a sell-out and treachery.
The six-to-12 miles territorial seas should have become the exclusive domain of British fishing boats.
Instead, the EU insisted that terms for fishing are tied to terms for trading for at least five-and-a-half years and we must share our waters and resources with foreign fishermen.
The UK is the first Independent Coastal State to cede its coastal waters to foreign access and in return we gained a paltry amount of extra fish quotas and a very modest fund for modernising boats.
Industry dreams of rebuilding fishing communities and infrastructure lie in tatters.
But that’s not all that 2020 threw at the fishing industry. There we stood, our nation at the brink of a sea of new post-Brexit opportunities, and then Covid-19 struck!
The emergence of Covid in the first weeks of 2020 would be a challenge to test the resolve of many businesses, including fishing, processing, and transport.
The market in fresh and live fish simply vanished with the closure of hotels, restaurants and entire hospitality sectors such as cruise liners.
Households switched from fresh to frozen supplies and supermarkets closed their wet-fish counters.
The Government stepped in with some limited support packages for owners of smaller, inshore vessels and in the devolved administrations there was support for fish processing factories, although not in England.
A scheme was established whereby boat owners could establish new trading outlets by selling fish directly to consumers.
There was more than ten per cent increase in sales of domestic-caught fish to UK consumers over the period to October 2020.
A combination of planning for Brexit and dealing with the Covid pandemic would not be anyone’s choice of an entire year’s work, but that is precisely what the Government had to do and, in turn the fishing industry coped.
2020 has been the strangest of years in my 30-plus years of involvement in the fish catching sectors.
I would not wish on anyone or any industry the combined forces of Covid-19 chaos and Brexit-20 planning. Yet the fishing industry has survived.
Some sectors have fared better than others. More support is needed, especially in the shellfish segments where markets and prices are still severely depressed.
I have fought for many years with my industry colleagues to ‘Save Britain’s Fish’ and the choice to campaign for ‘Vote Leave’ at the referendum was as obvious to me as it was righteous.
The outcome of the ‘Deal’ would not have been my choice and I feel sadness for the fishermen who have again been classed as ‘expendable’.
Mercifully, the UK fishing industry is resilient, and its survival is not in doubt. In time the memories of 2020 will fade as we all make the best of the ‘Deal’ and move ahead with investment plans for the tomorrow that may be not quite as bright as promised and hoped for.
Whether or not the Government and its successors make a hash of the opportunities presented by Brexit is for them to decide.
My colours are nailed firmly on the mast and I’m proud of my small part in this chapter of British fishing history.