Former MP and Brexiteer Austin Mitchell recalls the devastating decline of fisheries in Grimsby.

Austin Mitchell,ex Labour MP and Brexiteer, recalls the devastating decline on U.K. Fisheries. His story comes from a think tank report from The Red Cell – Net Worth: Putting the EU Fisheries Negotiations into Context (link to full detailed report at the bottom of the article)

Mr Mitchell wrote: Fishing is a small industry creating an enormous problem. The Common Fisheries policy which made fish a common resource was cobbled together as Britain and Norway began negotiations to enter the Common Market. The intention behind it was to get access to British and Norwegian waters. Norway rejected the proposal, but Ted Heath agreed to it in his desperation to get into the Market, assuming that British waters weren’t important because most of our catch then came from Iceland.

Big mistake. Within four years we’d lost Iceland to find that we couldn’t follow the rest of the world in taking our own 200 mile limits because the CFP made us part of a “European pool” to which we contributed around three quarters of the catch but got the right to catch less than a third.
The inevitable result was overfishing.

The Commission doled out paper fish to please everyone. European vessels caught more of our own fish than we were allowed – 683,000 tonnes compared to 111000 in 2016. Policing to stop cheating and over-catching was inadequate but more importantly we couldn’t rebuild our fishing industry within our own waters as other nations were doing because British waters weren’t ours. So, both the industry and its processing side shrank, particularly in England because Scotland got a slightly better deal.

Here was a major scandal: a power grab turned into a basic EU policy, with a British industry, small in economic terms but enormous in symbolic ones, treated as disposable by our own government. In subsequent negotiations other issues were always more important than any fight to get a better deal on fishing. Overfishing by other members was largely unchecked, and huge factory ships like the Dutch owned, Lithuanian registered “Margiris” could wander in for a few days’ looting. British boats were laid up, or forced to limit effort by days at sea, properly called days of enforced idleness.

Coastal communities suffered. The family ties which had brought sons of fishermen into fishing were cut. The remaining fleet aged, the associated engineering, building and processing. industries shrank. I investment largely stopped.

As Chair of the All-Party Fisheries Group I watched a succession of Fishing Ministers set off for the annual quota negotiations vowing to get a better deal only to come back full of excuses after accepting cuts. These cuts then increased wasteful discards because in mixed fisheries any reduction in quota allocations means vessels must throw back any by catches, they’re not allowed to land, meaning vessels were throwing back almost as much as we landed. In the face of this folly the EU decided that all catching should be landed but has been unable to enforce its own policy.

Folly turned into farce as the EU court’s Factortame decision allowed foreigners to buy up British vessels and their quotas. As a result, two fifths of the English quota goes to foreign fishermen and

one massive Dutch vessel the “Cornelius Vrilijk” catches a quarter of the English quota. Foreign incursions, like the destruction of Yorkshire lobster pots by French fishermen went unpunished because there was no effective EU inspection at their ports of landing. Indeed, when I spent a week on a fisheries protection vessel, I found it rigorous in inspecting British vessels, but foreigners simply escaped beyond the median line.

We Brits were tough only on our own industry. Government wouldn’t provide the supplementary funding necessary to tap CFP funds for new build or restructuring, so competitors got new vessels at our expense while our fleet aged. Even worse HMG refused to pay compensation to British fishermen made redundant until they were forced to do so by the courts and a campaign by Grimsby and Hull.

Fishing struggled on but 80% of the fish Britain needed now came from abroad, particularly Iceland and Norway both of which had sensibly refused to go into the EU because of the CFP. As MP for Grimsby I had to watch the port’s decline, the collapse of fishing’s engineering, the shrinking of processing and the loss of Grimsby college’s fishing courses as our fleet dwindled from 500 vessels to a score. From that low point only Brexit gives us any prospect of rebuilding our own fishing industry in our own waters.

The paradox is that a clean break on fishing is apparently simple but politically difficult. Once we pull out only a fifth of the crucial stocks are left in the “common” pool. That’s a crucial problem for France whose fishermen are prone to turn to violence, blockade ports, poach and generally make trouble for a French government already threatened by internal unrest. So, France pushes the EU to play hardball, even though most other members have no interest in fishing round Britain.

The first effort was to threaten import bans on British fish unless EU vessels got access to British waters. That looks potent since three quarters of our catches do go to the EU but in fact tariffs can hardly go higher than the minimum levels imposed on Iceland and Norway and will in any case be paid by the consumer. Endless red tape on perishable goods would be more difficult, but if the French state can’t control its own trade other states will take it.

So, the next tactic is to insist that unless fishing access is agreed there can be no further negotiations, and no access for our valuable financial services. Such bullying will hardly appeal to other EU members and is in any case chronologically difficult since Britain leaves the EU at the end of this transitional year and then becomes an independent coastal state controlling its own waters under the UN law of the sea. The CFP then has no jurisdiction.

That will reduce the EUs claim to a simple demand for access It will be pitched unacceptably high but is negotiable. Until the British fishing industry is rebuilt and reorganised there is fishing capacity to spare, as long as access is on a reducing scale and decided on an annual basis. We can regulate fishing in the same way as they do in Norway which allows some EU access on the basis of an annual review of sustainable catch levels based on scientific advice. Supervised access to EU vessels is then agreed in return for swops in British waters.

British fishing could be run on the same basis with either swop arrangements or licence fees, a more substantial fishery protection effort to stop illegalities and cheating and a gradual phasing out of foreign fishing as the British industry builds up. That would create the certainty which investment requires, something the CFP has disastrously failed to do.

The alternative is a new cod war with an EU acting illegally and in defiance of the law of the sea. Right and the law would be on our side though neither side would want such an outcome. The way to avoid it is for the British Government to be absolutely firm on British control over British waters, to stand by fishing in a way none of its predecessors has done and refuse any concessions to win other arguments in the battle of Brexit.

Brexit means that we control our own waters for our own purposes. This would recognise that only the nation state has an interest in conserving its sustainable fish stocks to hand on to future generations. For fifty years British fishing has suffered the consequences of Ted Heath’s failure to understand that. Now we can do so before it’s too late.

FULL TEXT: The Red Cell named Net Worth: Putting the EU Fisheries Negotiations into Context

Brexit means that we control our own waters for our own purposes. This would recognise that only the nation state has an interest in conserving its sustainable fish stocks to hand on to future generations. For fifty years British fishing has suffered the consequences of Ted Heath’s failure to understand that. Now we can do so before it’s too late.

FULL TEXT: The Red Cell named Net Worth: Putting the EU Fisheries Negotiations into Context

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