WHENEVER I mention the subject of fishing, there is always someone who replies by saying that it makes only a minor contribution to our GDP and is therefore of no economic importance. What such people fail to realise is that there is a lot more to the fishing industry than the men who go out on to the high seas. Indeed, unless you work in the industry, you have no idea how many ancillary industries depend on fishing vessels for their survival – gear suppliers, engineers, electricians, riggers, provision suppliers, hauliers and so on. The fishing industry creates work for civil servants, scientists and marine protection services, and fishermen benefit the wider economy of our coastal communities: their boats are subject to harbour dues while a good proportion of the wages they earn will be spent locally.
Unfortunately, the sector has contracted considerably in the last 50 years, and you will not find the same variety of fishing businesses and vessels, because of our membership of the EU and the Common Fisheries Policy.
The first to go was the deep sea sector, which operated out of ports such as Aberdeen, Fleetwood, Grimsby, Hull and Lowestoft. The reason for their demise was that we were progressively excluded from fishing in the waters of other nations as national fishery limits were extended from three to six and then 12, 50, and finally 200 nautical miles from the shoreline, while at the same time we were unable to do the same with our waters because we had given them away to the EU.
The deep sea sector largely comprised company-owned vessels. The fishermen were employees fishing by trawling in traditional areas. If they had been able to move back into UK waters and have exclusive access, they would have had to learn new grounds and techniques but would have kept going. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen and instead there was a steady flow of vessels going to the breaker’s yard for scrapping, being stripped of anything useful to keep the remaining vessels going until they too were scrapped. Most had gone by the start of the 1980s apart from a few Stern Trawlers, and we were lucky that five were still available to fight in the 1982 Falklands conflict. Meanwhile the ancillary industries which depended on these trawlers were forced to close, draining the lifeblood out of local communities.
The inshore sector was very different. Typically owned by families with one or two vessels, these boats operated using many different techniques, known as ‘fishing the seasons’. This system produced a very close-knit community, with expertise passed from father to son, enabling enterprising lads to start with an open boat, moving upwards to owning larger vessels, and in the process learning different fisheries. It worked well, and is something which would be well worth reinstating.
This won’t be possible, however, until we are rid of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which was the main reason for the decline which the inshore sector has suffered. The CFP is a system driven by politics, rigid and ruthless in its drive towards integration – in other words, treating all the member states’ fleets as one EU fishing fleet in centrally-controlled EU waters. It was a while before the UK fleet began to suffer. For the first ten years of our membership, nothing much happened, giving a false sense of security with everyone forgetting what was in our Accession Treaty.
The turning point was the early 1980s when Spain was negotiating to join the EEC (now the EU). How was the European Commission going to integrate the huge Spanish fleet? Spain had little to contribute to the overall EU resource, so where were its many boats going to fish? Someone else would have to make room.
That ‘someone else’ was to be the UK, our fishermen in particular. It is no exaggeration to describe what happened next as evil. To rebalance the much enlarged EU fleet within the not greatly enlarged EU resource, the British fleet had to be scaled down, but to avoid an outcry it had to be done surreptitiously. The public had to be deceived as to what was going on. It is to the lasting shame of our politicians that they happily collaborated with Brussels in distorting the facts and spreading the misleading message of ‘too many vessels chasing too few fish’.
At that time a huge volume of juvenile fish was being dumped dead back in the sea (I will explain why in a later article), and the sand eel stock, a very important part of the food chain, was being considerably overfished. There could be only one result: fish stocks would decline, allowing very strict EU conservation rules to be imposed in the name of conservation, enforced rigorously by the British on the British. The truth was that it was the surfeit of EU fishing boats (especially Spanish vessels) not a shortage of fish per se which was the cause of these problems. We had the knowledge to prevent killing small fish, and the sand eel situation was deliberate madness.
During these years, our fisherman had to cheat to survive. Essentially, honest hard-working men were forced to become criminals. The stress was unbelievable. Unsurprisingly, fathers began to tell their sons not to follow them into the industry. Those with strong Christian convictions, who could not bring themselves to cheat, soon fell by the wayside.
So many UK vessels were scrapped and many ancillary businesses went with them. The fishermen’s earnings no longer went into the local community. Given this sad story, it is no surprise that the Social Market Foundation found seaside areas to be among the most deprived parts of the UK as far as earnings, employment, health and education were concerned. Sadly, what is left of our industry is moving away from small family firms to large company ownership, just like the former deep sea sector.
It could be so different. Away from the CFP, fisheries could be a great Brexit success story. It is still not too late to reinvigorate the industry – and with it, the coastal communities. Sadly, the Remainers don’t want that. EU integration matters more to them than the wishes of the electorate or the livelihood of our fishermen and those who live in our seaside towns and villages.