Piece of Humber fishing history stops London in its tracks
The Kirkella fishing vessel passes under Tower Bridge on the way to her naming ceremony in Greenwich (Image: Guy Lane)
By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 26 Apr 2019
The Humber’s newest fishing vessel brought London to a standstill. But its owners are concerned its fishing days could be jeopardy, writes Parliamentary correspondent Patrick Daly.
When traffic was brought to a standstill on London’s Tower Bridge on Tuesday, drivers stuck in their cars can hardly have expected to witness an 81m fishing vessel sailing past.
The Kirkella, freshly scrubbed to show off her bold yellow and white exterior, travelled down the River Thames to its naming ceremony in Greenwich this week and made quite the splash after its owners decided to test its 3,976 tonne frame by squeezing it through Tower Bridge on Tuesday afternoon. After a 180 degree turnaround – watched by thousands of bemused tourists visiting the Tower of London and HMS Belfast – it slotted through the drawbridges a second time before docking near the Cutty Sark for its naming by Princess Anne.
For Grimsby and the Humber ports, the Kirkella is a final remnant of the past, a reminder that thousands of trawlers used to leave the region for the distant waters around Iceland, Norway and Greenland to hunt for haddock and cod – the fish favoured by those frequenting fish and chip shops in Britain.
Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations (NFFO) – who was on board for the trip down from Tilbury to Greenwich – said: “The Kirkella follows that great tradition of Humber distant water fleet – one of the largest fleets in the world at one point. I think the link to a home port, in Hull and Humberside, are really the repository of the skills and knowhow that remain at the heart of our ability to harvest the bounty of the sea.”
This latest Kirkella (there has been a distant water trawler by that name since 1936 in the Humber) has been in action since July, landing into Hull but with its catch – equivalent to bringing in 2.3m fish suppers every time – trucked to its cold stores in Grimsby. The previous Kirkella, built in 2015 and sold only three years later, docked in Grimsby but its replacement’s added depth means the Port of Hull is now a more convenient landing station.
The Kirkella sails under Tower Bridge
It is the largest white fish fishing vessel in the UK and supplies more cod and haddock to fish and chip shops than any other UK-owned trawler.
UK Fisheries Limited, the company that owns the Kirkella, is proud of its links to the Humber and has ignored any suggestion for it to dock in Peterhead in Scotland, the UK’s largest fishing port, or even in Norway, the closest country to where the Kirkella fishes. During its five trips a year, often lasting at least six weeks, the ship can usually be found in the Norwegian Sea, Greenland waters, the north-west Atlantic and the Barents Sea, towards the northern tip of Norway.
Jane Sandell, chief executive of the company, said: “The thinking [for staying in the Humber] is we are a Hull company and most of the people working for us are from Hull and Grimsby. Our cold store is in Grimsby and our main market is in the UK. Ultimately, we are going to have to ship all of the fish home anyway.
“If we are landing in Hull and trucking it to Grimsby, then it makes more sense. It makes business sense but it is also quite emotive – with the fishing industry there is always a strong link with whatever port you are from and so there is a bit of heritage there and we wanted to bring that back.
“When I joined the company, we were landing more into Norway and we made the decision to try and bring it back to the UK.
“It is as broad as it is long, so to say, as we’ve got to get the catch home anyway. It was just something that hadn’t really been fully considered – it was assumed that because facilities in Grimsby and Hull had declined it wouldn’t really be feasible for us to do that. But when we looked into it, it was feasible.
Jane Sandell, chief executive UK Fisheries
“The other Kirkella was going into Grimsby and that was about practicalities, with our cold store in Grimsby. Clearly, if you are trucking something from Grimsby Dock to the cold store, it is a shorter distance. But this vessel is slightly deeper so she can’t fit into Grimsby – not reliably, anyway.”
Immingham is also a deep-water port but Mrs Sandell said its industrial nature made it less suitable than Hull for landing a food product.
She said: “I think to be honest, the facilities in Hull are better. The berths we were offered in Immingham weren’t exactly what we were looking for. We have a food product here rather than some kind of industrial product. Even though everything is wrapped well, we just have to be really conscious it is a food product.”
With a build cost of more than £40 million, the Kirkella was no light investment. It caters for 32 crew on board, with 130 employed by the wider company, and each haul can bring in quantities of fish worth anything between £2.5-3m currently.
As well being able to catch vast amounts of fish during its month-and-a-half long trips, the vessel is effectively a floating seafood processing plant, with a state-of-the-art and heavily automated factory under deck which is able to skin, fillet and debone the white fish. There is even a fishmeal element to the plant, meaning nothing is wasted, with fish heads and other inedible parts being treated and then sold off to Pelagia in Grimsby, a company specialising in fishmeal fertiliser.
The crew on board also benefit from the use of internet, a cinema room, gym and even a sauna.
But, despite the show of confidence in building a new boat, there remain huge concerns for UK Fisheries that the vessel, with all its mod-cons, could have to be tied up after Brexit.
The Kirkella uses white fish quota which has mostly been negotiated with Norway, a country that is not in the European Union. Any change in the arrangement it has currently, especially if there is a no-deal Brexit, could scupper the boat’s future.
Kirkella in London ahead of her naming ceremony
Sir Barney White-Spunner, chairman of the advisory board of UK Fisheries, said the company wanted future Norwegian access into UK waters to be based on a reciprocal arrangement. British-flagged vessels such as the Kirkella might want cod and haddock from the Barents Sea, but Norwegian fishermen also want ling and blue whiting from UK waters.
“We are not asking for anything new – this [arrangement] is what happens now,” said Sir Barney.
He continued, saying: “We, as an industry, are extremely concerned about Brexit and what happens. It could be a troubling time. Our concern is that we could be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
“There are huge advantages to Brexit for the fishing industry if it is properly handled. Our concern is that it is not being properly handled.”
If there is no Brexit deal agreed, then the Kirkella and her crew could be left in limbo while the UK and Norway agree new arrangements and fishing access rights.
Sir Barney said: “That could be pretty serious – we employ a lot of people, we have a big tax bill as a British company. This is where the politics of Brexit meets reality and jobs and mortgages. These are worrying times for a business like ours.”
Mrs Sandell added: “It would mean 100 people out of work in an area where jobs are hard to come by.”
The tourists of Tower Bridge happily waved at the Kirkella as she glided past London’s tall skyscrapers – a huge contrast to her usual surroundings up in Arctic waters.
But the warning from those who sail her is those could turn out to be waves of goodbye if a Brexit deal is not delivered and delivered well.