E.U. referendum

A Fish Out of Water

epa05366557 A flotilla of fishing trawlers, orgainzed by UKIP leader Nigel Farage, sails up the river Thames 'Fishing for Leave Flotilla' next to the Houses of Parliament in London Britain, 15 June 2016. Farage continues to campaign around the UK in the lead up to the EU referendum on 23 June. Britons will vote on whether to remain in or leave the EU in a referendum on 23 June 2016. EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Mutiny on the bounty? At a protest organized by the U.K. Independence Party, British fishermen sailed up the Thames river.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    E.U. and British rules and distribution of fishing quotas has led many in the United Kingdom to protest, but the industry is difficult to regulate as fish stocks rise and fall.

  • Facts


    • E.U. regulations seek to share fish stocks between the members of the bloc and protect the environment.
    • Fishing quotas are distributed between the countries in the European Union. In the United Kingdom, the government then further allocates the quotas.
    • The U.K. fishing industry is hard to regulate as fleets vary significantly in size and what they catch along the coast, meaning averages don’t always accurately portray the situation.
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Andy Giles, a fisherman from the village of Looe in Cornwall on the southwestern tip of England, is desperate to leave the European Union. “We’ve got to get our waters back,” he said.

Mr. Giles catches lemon sole, cuttlefish, monkfish, cod, haddock and squid 30 miles off the coast in the choppy Atlantic waters off of Britain.

He said he has to sail so far out to sea each day – he starts at 3 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m. – because of E.U. fishing quotas.

Europe’s common fisheries policy, or CFP, allocates how much fish, and what kind, each country can catch, to protect fish stocks.

“If we were French, it would be okay, but we have to sail two and a half hours each day to avoid catching haddock,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition, speaking from aboard a boat on the Thames River last week at a demonstration for Brexit organized by the Fishing for Leave campaign.

Mr. Giles hopes that if Britain leaves the European Union, he’ll be able to fish for what he wants, where he wants, when he wants.

We need to get a seat at the table. We’ve got a shocking deal under the current system.

Britain’s maritime industry, which encompasses shipping, ports, and fishing, is regulated by the International Maritime Organization. But it’s also regulated by the European Union, whose biggest impact is on environmental issues ranging from emissions from ships to fishing.

The common fisheries policy is designed to share and protect fish stocks, and is one of the most controversial aspects of Britain’s membership of the European Union.

The E.U. regulations set quotas, a limited radius for fleets, and give European fishing fleets shared access to up to a 12-mile radius from the coasts of member states. “If you’re French, you can come within 6 miles of our coastline,” Mr. Giles said.

Many in Britain are upset at that at present, quotas for fish stocks are determined by negotiations between the European Union, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Britain’s fisheries ministry has said if Britain was not part of the European Union, British fishing companies would have a bigger say in the allocation.

“We need to get a seat at the table,” Mr. Giles said. “We’ve got a shocking deal under the current system.”

The campaign in Britain to stay in the European Union argues that the E.U.-negotiated fishing regulations are in fact working, and are helping fish stocks recover.

People are using the referendum as an opportunity to express anger about the Common Fisheries Policy, according to Paul Trebilcock, who leads the Cornish Fish Producers’ Organization.

How far the swell and ebb of the British fishing industry was shaped by the European Union depends on your point of view. The size of the British fishing fleet has changed in the last decades and fishing stock has grown and contracted. “It’s been a bumpy journey,” said Barrie Deas, who leads the U.K. National Federation of Fishermen’s Organizations.

Fishing stocks have been in decline for a long time. But in the past, before World War II, British vessels fished off the coasts of Norway, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Big ports from Aberdeen, Scotland, to Hull and Grimsby in England, were made possible by fishing.

When Britain joined the European Union in 1973, British fishermen found themselves suddenly restricted by new rules at a time when fish stocks, as they often do, were rising, for no explicable reason.

“The CFP was not in the initial stages a success,” Mr. Deas said. It came ahead of a huge expansion in fish stocks in the 1980s in the population of cod, haddock and whiting.

Fishing fleets expanded to meet the demand, but by the 1990s, fishing stocks began to decline, perhaps from overfishing, and the European Union supported decommissioning schemes to encourage fishermen to scrap vessels and discard their fishing licenses.

The measures reduced the British fishing industry more than a third. Mr. Giles said at his fishing village in Looe, in 1987 there were 35 trawlers. Now there are only six.

British fishermen and fleets have suffered, Mr. Trebilcock said, but he doubted this was solely because of E.U. fishing quotas, market fluctuations or the U.K.’s own policy to reduce fishing fleets.

The year 2000 was a turning point. Fishing pressure fell, and fish stocks started to increase, some dramatically, even North Sea cod. Now, increases in biomass show fish are recovering and that 80 percent of fish stocks in the European Union are at a maximum sustainable yield.


Lobster pots whitby DPA
Lobster pots in Whitby, northern England. What fishermen catch varies greatly in the U.K. Source: DPA


There are other positive signs from the fishing industry, from rising investment in new boats to record numbers of new industry construction in Scotland. Mr. Trebilcock said the situation in the fishing industry differed between Scotland and southwest England, regions that are quite strong, and ports on Britain’s east coast such as Scarborough, Grimsby and Hull, which are struggling.

Geographical factors make Britain’s fishing industry hard to regulate centrally from Europe, Mr. Deas said, though he underlined that his organization is neutral on the Brexit question and presents both sides of the debate on its website.

Britain’s commercial fishing fleet is diverse, varying from 10-meter vessels with two or three fishermen who stick close to shore, to 100-meter vessels which fish for shoals of mackerel further out at sea. “That means averaging is a good way to present a distorted picture,” Mr. Deas said.

Britain’s geography also makes it a special case. E.U. rules restrict fishing within a 200 mile radius of the country but the British Isles’ proximity to France and Ireland places additional limits on how far U.K. fishermen can sail.

The United Kingdom’s fishing grounds are diverse and there are many different kinds of fisheries up and down the coasts, some very small, others much larger. In Norway, as a comparison, fish are sold via a centralized sales organization.

Also, for Norwegian fishermen, there are fewer different species involved, Mr. Deas said. In Britain, typically people don’t fish for one kind of fish but a portfolio. “That makes regulation quite hard.” Until recently, regulations forced fishermen to throw back part of their catch if it exceeded the quotas. Some progress has been made, including abandoning the discard policy.

But fishermen want to see change. The Fish for Leave campaign looks back to when fleets were bigger and catches were larger. Times are still tough, they say.

“We work 240 days a year, that’s up from 180 days when I started,” Mr. Giles said. “It might not sound like much but when you bear in mind they’re 18- to 20-hour days, it’s a lot.”

Looking ahead, if Britain leaves the European Union, it is unclear how fishing would be negotiated in the future.

Mr. Giles said Britain’s fishing minister, George Eustace, has promised to drive a better deal for fishermen with the European Union.

But British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn blamed the British government for the way quotas are distributed within the United Kingdom. He accused politicians of unfairly allocating two-thirds of the available fishing quotas to a few large companies, at the expense of smaller operations.

“There’s no clear line of sight” about what’s next, Mr. Trebilcock said. His organization represents smaller fishing boats and larger vessels and its members are divided on whether or not they wanted to leave the European Union – and anxious about whether they would regain control of the waters. “What would we have to give up in exchange?” he said.

He said future fishing policy should balance the social and economic impact and recognize where communities depend on fishing, such as in Cornwall and the Shetlands in Scotland where it is important in the community and intrinsic to the broader economy. “It’s important to balance keeping people at sea and managing fishing sustainably,” Mr. Trebilcock said.

Fishermen are hopeful about a future outside the union, Mr. Giles, a father of two, said. “I want my sons to be able to go into fishing and make a good living,” he added. Brexit might not be for everybody, he said, “but for us fishermen, it’s essential.”


Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: williams@handelsblatt.com

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