British fishermen ‘sold down river’ as EU plundering UK waters

British fisherman slams broken Brexit promises

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Fishermen in the town of Leigh-on-Sea, neighbouring Southend-on-Sea, feel they have been let down by the Government. In 2016, the Vote Leave campaign promised radical reforms to help the industry take back control of UK waters and increase quota shares.

But three years after the UK left the EU and two years on from the deal being implemented, locals say not all the promises made have been kept, with EU trawlers still allowed to plunder British waters.

Local, Matty Smith, who has been a fisherman for over 40 years, is eager for the country to reassert control of its territorial waters off the British coasts.

As he and his crew prepared to head out into the estuary, He told “I supported Brexit. We wanted our sovereignty back, and we were hoping to gain back the full 12-mile limit and our quotas back.

“The Government are now unsure whether they are going to keep that 12-mile limit, and they just let foreign boats back in here to fish.

“People are a bit nervous now about what could happen if the European boats keep their access. We didn’t get what we bargained for.”

One of the main reasons the majority of fishermen voted to leave the EU was so they could regain control of the 12-mile zone off British coastlines.

However, the Brexit trade agreement secured by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that 25 percent of overall existing EU quota in UK waters will be returned to British fishermen over a five-and-a-half-year period.

After 2026, the UK and EU will negotiate their fishing arrangements annually.

The Government’s fisheries statistics show that, in 2021, 20,000 tonnes of fish were landed by foreign vessels in UK waters, down 48 percent on 2020. This reduction was credited to the Brexit trade deal.

Last week, fisheries minister Mark Spencer refused to guarantee that the UK will get its 12 nautical mile limit when the Brexit fisheries deal is renegotiated in 2026.

When asked about this, Mr Spencer said he wanted to secure “the best possible deal for the UK”.

While fishermen in Leigh-on-Sea are delighted with their increased quota, they remain disappointed that foreign vessels are still free to roam to British waters.

Matty’s colleague, Martin, echoed this sentiment while hitting out at former Prime Minister Mr Johnson for failing to deliver on his promises to fishermen.

He said: “We were promised something very different to what we got. We thought we’d get control of our fishing waters back. But that’s not what has happened, it is the same old recipe.

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“Boris Johnson particularly, he ran the Leave campaign and didn’t fulfil his promises.”

Martin added that he feels the UK fishing industry was a “bargaining chip” in Brexit talks and was “sold down the river for financial services”.

Not everyone in the Thames Estuary town believed Brexit would boost the local fishing industry.

James Bates, director of his company Fruits of the Sea, was sceptical of Brexit from the start.

He said: “We were 100 percent Remain, I didn’t believe the dream people were being sold. Of course, there were people like Nigel Farage jumping on fishing boats which incited something in people, but it was all a load of rubbish.

“You might be able to catch more fish, but if you can’t sell more fish…we just couldn’t believe people were following that trend.”

James’ business exports cockles to Spain. He started the business back in 2016, just as Brexit was beginning to dominate the political debate in the country.

Prior to the 2016 referendum, Britain exported 60-80 percent of its fish to Europe. After the trade agreement came into action on January 1 2021, the added bureaucracy impacted many businesses.

James says his expenses have gone soared while other businesses have collapsed as a result of the added bureaucracy needed to move fresh goods into Europe.

He explained: “In the industry, most people feel they were sold something that never materialised. There are businesses across the country that have been lost to Brexit.

“Everyone was sold a dream. Everyone was told ‘you’ll get your seas back’ and ‘you’ll get massive quotas’. But the domestic market just isn’t there to take all of the product, everything goes to Europe pretty much. Brexit has destroyed that export business.”

While Brexit has caused a mixture of upheaval and disappointment for some in Leigh-on-Sea’s fishing industry, the people there are keen to point out the positives.

While Brexit has posed challenges for some businesses exporting fresh goods to Europe, it has helped boost the market at home.

The Government’s £100million funding pledge for the fishing industry, which formed part of the Brexit deal, also helped Osborne’s improve its business.

Andrew said: “Before Brexit, we exported to Spain, but most of our cockles stayed in the UK anyway. Now all of our catch stays in the UK.

“The demand for UK shellfish rose, and the UK consumer wanted to see local sustainably caught fish. Brexit and Covid helped our business a lot. But other industries like the muscle industry were badly affected by Brexit.

“It is a positive. The Government put £100million into the fishing sector, and we used our grants to build more factories. Brexit has helped a lot of fishing companies because it has made them aware of the British market.”

Martin also says it’s “not all negative” with increased quotas helping him catch fish he’d never have caught before.

For now, the mood among those in Leigh-on-Sea is a combination of frustration and concern, but also optimism.

While they feel not every promise made by politicians has been kept, they believe the fishing industry has huge potential if the Government provides adequate support.

Paul Gilson, a former fisherman and town councillor, says he and others in the industry are still glad Brexit happened.

He said: “There are winners and losers, you hear a lot about all these fishermen who want to back into Europe, but I haven’t met any. Even some of my very pro-Europe friends don’t want to go back now because of how they handled themselves.”

“I often feel there is a lot of negative press, but when you get down there on the ground, it’s alright.

“I think a lot of bitterness came from Europe because we became freer, we can do more. We just need leadership from our politicians.”

He wants the UK to take full control of the 12-mile zone, adding that “there is a good chance” this can happen.

Mr Gilson added: “Long-term it looks better than we thought it might, but we hoped to be further along the line.

“I want to see that control out to 12 miles…as our stocks grow, then we can allow access and volume of fish back to Europe. But we have to manage it.”

Back on Bell Wharf in Leigh-on-Sea’s old town, Matty says he and people like him are “trying to rebuild” the town’s fishing industry.

He urged the Government to invest in the fishing industry to provide more factories, modernised ships and subsequently more jobs.

He points to Brixham in Devon, which enjoyed a record £60million year of trading at its port in 2022, arguing that the British fishing industry can succeed.

He also urged Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to come down to Leigh-on-Sea and hear their concerns face-to-face.

Matty added: “I’ve never seen Starmer visiting a fishing port. I’ve never seen Sunak come and visit anyone down here either. They need to come and see us, they can only care about what they hear about.

“With the politicians, we need to talk to them so we can get some help.

“The market in Brixham has boomed because the foreign boat companies are coming to buy British fish so it has half worked. Parts have helped, but we need to stop the foreign boats.

“We’ve got a big farm out there worth millions of pounds. If we stopped the foreign vessels taking it and started building factories the work and employment for people in this country would be astronomical.

“The fishing industry is the people’s industry.”

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs has been approached for comment.

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