The biggest whitefish trawler in the UK fleet sailed up the Thames on Tuesday to highlight the threats facing the fishing industry if Brexit negotiations fail to deliver a deal.
The Kirkella, based at Hull, can catch 2.3 million fish on every two-month voyage, plying the seas of the Arctic, Greenland, Norway and the north-east Atlantic. Built last year, it has travelled to the Arctic five times so far, and on Wednesday it will be officially named and launched by the Princess Royal at Greenwich in London. Spectators will be treated to 3,000 free portions of fish and chips.
But there will be little celebration if the Brexit process fails, the vessel’s owners warned, as from Brexit day onwards there will be no automatic access to these key waters and a deal must be struck with the governments of Norway, Iceland and the Faroes if British fishing there is to continue. The jobs of hundreds of fishermen and many hundreds more in fish processing in north-east England will be at risk unless vessels are able to continue in waters that have long been open to UK fleets.
“Brexit has huge advantages for fishing if it is properly handled,” said Sir Barney White-Spunner, the chairman of the advisory board of UK Fisheries, which owns the Kirkella. “Our concern is that it is not being properly handled.”
He is concerned that in the no-deal continuity arrangements that have been signed with Norway, Iceland and the Faeroes, the UK has granted access to UK markets for these nations to export their fish to British consumers, without demanding reciprocal access to fishing grounds in return.
Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA
The question of what happens to the fishing waters of the north-east Atlantic has received little attention compared with other shared fishing grounds such as the North Sea, despite being the key area for the UK’s fish and chip shop staples of cod and haddock. The areas around the distant waters off the non-EU states of Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes are referred to by the EU as Northern External Waters, or NEWfish for short.
While these NEWfish waters are not governed by the EU, the UK’s relationship to the EU is still crucial in determining access to them. As an EU member state, the UK has been constrained in its negotiations with non-EU member states, but as the independent coastal state that the government has promised after Brexit would have the ability to strike separate deals.
In practice, however, these negotiations are likely to be caught up after Brexit in the broader question of EU relations. Fishing became a totemic issue in the Brexit campaign, but its future is likely to be dependent on factors in the Brexit negotiations far beyond fishermen’s control: many EU countries see maintaining access to UK waters as a key strategic need and the fishing industry fears that the government will use this as a bargaining chip for leverage in other aspects of the post-Brexit deal.
Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said: “Access to our markets is a source of leverage, but it is up to the government to use it. The common fisheries policy has allowed EU fleets to catch six times as much fish in UK waters as we take out of EU waters. It is asymmetrical.”
Norway’s interests are also key to whether NEWfish waters remain open to the UK. Although Norway is concerned to keep good relations with the EU, it has a strong interest in the UK market which accounts for £500m of its fish exports.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “When the UK leaves the EU we will be an independent coastal state, allowing us to negotiate with other coastal states on fishing opportunities and access. Leaving the EU gives us the opportunity to design a new domestic fishing policy – one which is in the best interests of the whole of the UK and which allows our industry to thrive.”
Fish stocks have been recovering in the North Sea and north-east Atlantic, though there is disagreement between the industry and campaigners over the amount of fishing they can now sustain. Smaller vessels, which employ more people per catch, have been championed by green campaigners as a better option for keeping the fishing industry alive, and more deserving recipients of fishing quotas.
Defenders of large vessels reject this, arguing that the waters in which the Kirkella and similar trawlers operate are inhospitable to small vessels, which tend to fish closer to shore. “It is horses for courses,” said Jane Sandell, the chief executive of UK Fisheries. “They could not do what we do, and vice versa.”
Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
The Kirkella lands one in every dozen portions of fish sold in UK fish and chip shops, with almost all the rest imported. Once landed, fish are processed onboard, with complex machinery removing bones automatically and cutting fillets to size. They are frozen within 40 minutes in a specially constructed “freezing hotel”, then boxed for sale in the UK and other European markets.
The fishing industry employs only about 11,000 people in the UK, and its contribution to GDP is less than 1%. But as the Brexit campaign showed, its significance far exceeds what the statistics might suggest, not least because it is a significant industry in some otherwise economically depressed regions.
White-Spunner said: “We are a fishing nation, we always have been. It is not just the effect on jobs, but on the British soul – this is part of us as a nation.”
There was cheering and waving from the banks of the Thames as Tower Bridge opened on Tuesday for the Kirkella to pass through to the historic former Billingsgate fish market, where all fish destined for London were once landed. A trawler of this size is a rare sight in this part of the Thames. The Kirkella’s owners and crew are hoping it does not become an equally rare sight in its remote fishing grounds of the Arctic.