Sussex fishing community gets a taste of Brexit betrayal

A fishing boat called Gratitude moored on the beach at Hastings.
Skippers of Hastings boats like the ironically named Gratitude are bitterly disappointed with the government’s Brexit deal. Photo credit: Rick Dillon

Most of the time the fishing community in the UK is invisible, but every now and then – usually when there has been a row with the EU – the media take up the cause of our “brave fishermen”, and there is much harrumphing in the House of Commons and many threats to send gunboats into the Channel to fight the French. But nothing much changes. Which is exactly what has happened over the past few weeks.

The fishing industry has every right to feel aggrieved. Fishermen voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU in the 2016 Referendum, believing that they could escape the hated provisions of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), and they relied on government promises to extend the exclusion zone around Britain’s coasts. The assurances given by Secretary of State George Eustice when the Fisheries Minister turned out to be rather more straw than the cast iron he had promised. And cries of betrayal went up once the details of the EU-UK agreement were known just before Christmas. 

To gauge the mood of local fishing communities and to understand the challenges that the industry faces, Sussex Bylines got the views of fishermen from Hastings, Eastbourne and Newhaven. It was clear that they face a daunting array of problems – competition from continental “super trawlers”, the impact of Covid on sales and profit, and the tsunami of paperwork now involved in exporting their catch to the continent.  

Tom Downey, who comes from a long line of Newhaven fishermen, keeps his 10 metre boat Razorbill at the port, along with two smaller boats that he uses mainly to fish from in the summer months. He is less worried about the impact of Brexit, he told us, as he sells his catch of brill, skate, plaice, turbot, cod and bass to a local wholesaler for the UK market, but has seen his profits savagely slashed by the pandemic. 

With restaurants in Britain and Europe closed, the market for fish has collapsed. Many of the larger boats in Sussex ports are currently tied up idle, as it’s not worth their while to take to sea. Prices in some areas have fallen as low as 2p a kilo. And much-prized lemon sole, that should fetch £10 a kilo, has dropped to just 10p. 

Newhaven fisherman Tom Downey aboard his boat checks on the latest catch.
Newhaven fisherman Tom Downey has escaped the worst effects of Brexit, but has been hit hard by the pandemic. Photo credit: Mark Gillet

Others express their bitterness at what they see as a betrayal by the government. Paul Joy, Hastings fisherman and co-chair of the inshore fishing group New Under Tens Fishermen’s Association (NUTFA), told Sussex Bylines: “The government has sold us down the river.” He does not regret his support for Brexit, saying: “We still think it’s better to deal with our elected leaders, rather than the unelected in Brussels.” But faith is wearing thin. 

Where the government had let them down, he says, was in abandoning a pledge for Britain to control its waters within 12 miles of the shore. It remains at six miles, as a result of hard bargaining by the French.

Jerry Percy, who represents small-scale fishermen with boats under 10 metres, agrees. “The government promised us unequivocally that the six to 12 zone was sacrosanct and that they would remove all the foreign effort – and lo and behold, they didn’t,” he told the BBC Food Programme. 

“On the six-mile line just before Christmas, we counted 17 large Belgian beam trawlers between Hastings and Brighton alone. These vessels are massive and they go up and down all day so it’s not surprising that our catch drops in the inshore grounds because the fish can’t get in there.”  

Eastbourne skipper Graham Doswell points out that the government had a golden opportunity to stop the decline of fish stocks by extending the exclusive fishing zone to 12 miles. “They promised they were going to do this, and it’s absolutely dashed our hopes. It would have put a spark of life into inshore fishing, it would have stopped the slide.” 

The government has tried – and failed – to put a good gloss on the effect of Brexit – with MP Penny Mordaunt claiming that catches would rise by two-thirds under the deal. Her maths are way off – and mocked in a sea shanty lampoon in the Radio 4 statistics-checking programme More or Less (see video link below).

So is the fishing industry in terminal decline? The public has a crucial role to play in preventing this happening. We need to broaden our tastes, eat far more fish like bass, whiting, pollock and shellfish that would previously gone to continental buyers, and to buy direct from the increasing number of boats selling their produce at the quayside. 

If we genuinely value our fishermen we can do much to support them. For, as Tom Downey says, in spite of all the challenges that he faces, “On a good summer’s day there’s no better job in the world”.

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