The Fisheries Fallacy

Oliver Quinn explores how the impact of a no-deal Brexit in the fishing sector would hurt the very communities that voted for leave on the basis of fishing.

Initially, it may seem strange that the issue of fisheries continues to dominate the Brexit headlines. Accounting for just 0.1% of Britain’s GDP, it sits uncomfortably alongside the much more economically significant issue of state aid as one of the two remaining sticking points in negotiations. But fisheries underpin two crucial ideological elements of Brexit which have made it a prevalent issue not just around the negotiation table, but from the beginning of the referendum campaign.

The first of these is sovereignty. Membership to the EU meant adherence to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), including to the quotas imposed on British fishing boats on how much they could fish from their own waters. The CFP also granted EU member states access to British waters, an exchange which Britain has increasingly suffered from. While picking up 100,000 metric tons of fish from EU waters, Britain loses 700,000 metric tons of its own fish to the EU annually. The image of EU member states’ fishing vessels carving shapes through British waters also conjured an image which encapsulated to the British public their nation’s eroded sovereignty. From the Royal Navy to the culinary delight of fish and chips, the seas surrounding Britain are connected to its identity. Regaining sovereignty and reclaiming control over British waters soon became synonymous.

The second ideological aspect of fisheries is more covert, not articulated in polls, but rather revealed through demographic research. One of the key cleavages that defined Brexit was between those who are driving the developments of globalisation, and those who feel left behind by the changes. The fishing industry and the towns it resides in are strongly connected to this ‘left behind’ community. It is an industry that has been in decline for decades, continually being overlooked by a political body acting on an international stage. In fishing towns such as Grimsby, where over 70% of residents voted leave, the referendum offered an opportunity to launch an attack on the EU elite, and to foreground their own voice in British politics. Post-industrial towns distinct from fishing found an affinity with the topic. Reclaiming British waters came to represent a reinvestment in the post-industrial towns suffering low levels of social mobility and high levels of disillusionment in globalisation. In Workington, a town traditionally associated with industries such as coal and steel, 60.2% of the population voted leave. The figure for Wakefield, home to the National Coal Mining Museum, was two percent higher than that at 62.2%.

But the symbolic success of Brexit may come at the expense of the economic prosperity it promised to towns such as Grimsby. Leave was popular among fishermen, but less popular among those in the seafood processing sector. Almost half of those employed in the processing sector are either EU or EEA internationals, whose futures in Britain are uncertain in light of restricted freedom of movement and new migration policies. If the processing sector loses a substantial amount of workers, the fishing industry will not have the infrastructure to sustain production or profits. One could argue that the loss of EU internationals will open up opportunities for the unemployed in Britain, however the summer of 2020 showed a glimpse of the British distaste for work usually fulfilled by EU internationals. A large cohort of Eastern Europeans usually come to Britain to pick fruit during the summers, but when coronavirus prevented their travel, thousands of jobs were left either unoccupied or abandoned after a few weeks.

The biggest threat lies in trade, however. In 2019, out of the £2,027million Britain made from fish exports, £1,367million came from EU member states. Loss of access to the single market will lead to tariffs and border delays that will seriously impede this trading relation, and will be acutely problematic for the smaller fisherman. Britain’s fishing fleet is broken up into large-scale and small-scale fishing vessels. The latter represents almost 80% of the fleet, but has been drowned out in the media narrative by the larger vessels’ voices. Smaller vessels tend to target shellfish, a commodity particularly enjoyed by consumers in the continent; a bare bones trade will leave them estranged from their favourite customer.

The government has continually framed Brexit negotiations as a zero-sum game in regaining sovereignty. But the novelty of patrolling our own waters will soon wear off, and the reality of suffocated trade channels and weakened industrial infrastructure will begin to impose itself on the fishermen of Britain. It is perhaps a useful lesson in the dangers of direct democracy and of politicising economic issues. But this lesson will be of little value to the fishermen of Grimsby who, in gaining unfettered access to their waters, find themselves even further left behind.


Oliver Quinn studied English Literature at Oxford, and is now undertaking an MSc in European Culture and Conflict at LSE. He tweets at @OliverQ_27.


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