One of the more peculiar aspects of this on-going Brexit saga is the role ‘fish’ have played in the debate. Earlier this week, Nigel Farage and Jacob Hake-Cod went down to the Thames and chucked a load of haddock in the river to highlight ‘EU quota policies’ which cause millions of tonnes of perfectly good fish to get thrown back in the sea every year despite the best efforts of the EU to stop it. “Control of our fishing” seems to be a bit of an obsession in some quarters – presumably because it speaks to the hearts and stomachs of a fish and chip loving island nation.
Emotion is a powerful factor in the Brexit debate and the idea of the ‘noble fisherman’ going out in all weathers to get a little fishy for a little dishy – plays to that narrative. Quotas exist for a reason of course. Trawler-men aren’t farmers but plunderers – who don’t sow what they harvest – and without restrictions certain types of fish would inevitably be driven to extinction.
But who is interested in details when you can have a photo opportunity on a fishing boat – and get Jacob to come along for larks.
Anyway for the 2.5% of Britons who are curious about some actual facts here are 3 things about the UK fishing industry that Mr Farage would perhaps rather you didn’t know.
ONE – our fish don’t know they’re British. Yes it’s true – unbelievably many ‘British fish’ have yet to be informed of the fact and accordingly go swimming off into French, Spanish, Icelandic and anyone else’s waters. Mackerel in particular seems to have no respect whatsoever for maritime boundaries – the Remoaner of the brine. Leave get very excited about the fact that other EU fishermen can pull ‘our fish’ from ‘our’ waters but under current agreements UK fishermen can do likewise. As it is, we currently export around 75% of ‘our’ seafood to the EU because it’s stuff we don’t like to eat like cuttlefish and megrim sole – and import the cod, haddock and plaice we actually want. This could have a devastating effect on the price of your fish and chips in a few months’ time – particularly if tariffs kick in – but at least you’ll be able to eat your sovereignty wrapped up in your blue passport. Salt and vinegar anyone?
TWO – fishing is an industry that makes up a tiny fraction of the UK economy accounting for just 0.07% of GDP. To put that in context Nissan UK alone adds ten times more to GDP than the entire fishing sector. Twice as many people work for Poundland than work as fishermen. Now I love a nice picturesque boat bouncing about on the waves as much as the next person – but concentrating attention on this tiny sector is fairly crazy when you consider that the poultry industry alone (worth £3.3bn) is three times bigger. Truth is – Brits don’t eat that much fish and are extremely unadventurous when they do. The reason you never hear Mr Farage talking about chickens and turkeys is because Brexit will have a devastating effect on this sector and poultry slaughter houses aren’t as evocative as men in yellow oilskins tossing about on the sea. Fishing is an industry that plays to notions of heritage and our island history – but in economic terms it is almost absurdly irrelevant.
THREE – forget your ladybird books and the Old Man and The Sea. Modern fishing is an industry. Three companies own nearly two thirds of England’s fishing quota and one of those, Andrew Marr International (no relation to BBC Marr) owns 12%. The Marr family are hugely rich – listed 855th on The Sunday Times rich list in 2016. There do remain many smaller operators of course and they too will want to be making as much money as they can off the biggest hauls possible….. because we are not talking about nostalgia here – it is an industry. Now Brexit may be in the financial interests of the Marrs and a few fishermen (although it probably isn’t) – but driving the UK off a cliff so a fishing vessel in Whitstable can bleed the seas dry is not in the interests of the vast majority of the British people – or perhaps even the fishermen themselves.
As John Sauven of Greenpeace said a couple of years ago –
“Brexit cheerleaders like Nigel Farage are cynically exploiting the legitimate anger of many British fishermen for political gain. The root of the problem lies in London, not Brussels. Quitting the EU will only condemn the industry to years of wrangling over new fisheries agreements, with no guarantee of a better deal for fishers or stronger protections for our seas.”
Here endeth the lesson.