Return to fishing industry ‘glory days’ unlikely

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 21 Mar 2018

For the second part of his fishing series, Parliamentary Correspondent Patrick Daly spoke with the area’s politicians about the future of Grimsby’s industry after Brexit.

PARLIAMENT sounded like a throwback to the 1970s yesterday as MPs chastised ministers about the “sell-out” of the fishing industry in the Brexit negotiations.

Ted Heath’s name – the former prime minister accused of betraying Britain’s fishermen when the UK joined the European Economic Community (as the EU was known then)in 1973 – was mentioned more than once as MPs, including Grimsby’s Melanie Onn and Cleethorpes’ Martin Vickers, chastised the decision to keep the UK in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) until December 2020.

Ms Onn blasted Brexit Secretary David Davis for treating the industry as “expendable” and said Grimsby voters would regard the transition deal as a “total sell-out”.

The outcome of the negotiations, set to be debated by leaders at the European Council meeting tomorrow, will see Britain remain subject to CFP rules but without a voice at the negotiating table when fish quotas are being decided. Environment Secretary Michael Gove assured angry MPs the UK’s “total allowable catch” would remain as it is during the transition, with the “bigger prize” coming after 2020.

Read more: Grimsby MP Melanie Onn blasts ministers for 'trading away' fishing in Brexit transition deal

But the question is, while Grimsby has a proud history and tradition of fishing, will the CFP wrangle matter to the town when its trawlers have all but disappeared from the docks?

The town was once home to 600 trawlers and the docks employed 7,000 people, with jobs ranging from landing and selling the fish to maintaining the vessels and the gear. Today, there are no regular landings of fresh fish from Grimsby-registered boats and the amount of fish sold at auction at Grimsby Fish Market has declined by about 70 per cent in the last decade alone.

So is Brexit and being outside the CFP likely to renew the once-vibrant industry?

The feeling when I spoke to those in the industry was that Grimsby still has the capacity to be home to more trawlers and there is the possibility a small uplift in the catching sector could occur.

Grimsby MP Ms Onn, pictured left, – who co-chairs the all-party group on fishing in Parliament – is of the mind that people in the town could earn their living from fishing once again. But it will be as part of an inshore fleet in the North Sea rather than a return to the historic traditions of long-distance trawling.

The Grimsby fleet was previously a distant-water industry, heading to the far reaches of the North Atlantic and Arctic waters before being cut-off from their fishing grounds after the conclusion of the Cod Wars with Iceland in 1976.

But it is the reform of the CFP that could hand wannabe-trawlermen the chance to enter the business. The quota of fish in the North Sea and other British waters – currently divvied up between EU fishing nations – will be returned to Westminster, should the UK leave the CFP in December 2020, making more catch available to fishermen.

Read more: Grimsby's fishing industry revival not guaranteed after Brexit, says North Lincs MEP

Ms Onn feels there is a window of opportunity but which would need serious investment in the docks and training to realise.

“I’ve been speaking to the local industry about whether we will ever go back to having the size of fleet where we had hundreds of boats registered and landing deep-sea fish in Grimsby and the answer is, ‘Probably not’,” said the Labour MP.

“What could we look forward to? I don’t want to write it off altogether. The view seems to be that there could be marginal growth in small inshore fishing vessels and I think, in order to do that, there would need to be some upgrading of the dock infrastructure which has fallen into disrepair over the years.

“There would need to be consideration about maritime skills and a look at what kind of training institutions we’d need – like the ones we used to have [such as Grimsby Nautical College] but don’t anymore.”
For those who remember the days of trawlermen returning from long trips to icy waters, often stopping for a drink in Freeman Street on the way home, talk of a burgeoning industry once again will be music to their ears.

But those “glory days” are unlikely to be realised, said Ms Onn, and especially not while UK fisheries are tied to the CFP.

Iceland has a deep-sea fleet which is heavily industrialised with huge fishing vessels that are often machine-operated. While some UK ports might be able to replicate that, Grimsby is unlikely to have the capability and nor would it be the desirable geographical location.

“The memory and nostalgia for fishing is so strong,” said Ms Onn, “and I know that in Grimsby there will be a significant core of people who want prosperity to come back to the town and will remember how we had that and want to get that again.

“But you can never recreate the glory days and, while that might sound downbeat, we have to look at fishing in the 21st century and see how we can make the most of that opportunity.

“This continuation of the CFP [during the transition period] will send the wrong signal in terms of capitalising on that opportunity.”

And Ms Onn is keen to stress that, although much of the focus has turned to the catching sector in recent days, Grimsby’s links to the fishing trade are mainly maintained now through seafood processing. The likes of Young’s, Icelandic Seachill and the Saucy Fish Company all make a profit by turning (often frozen) catches into plate-ready dishes for restaurants, pubs and supermarkets.

“The challenge is we still have a large industry around processing that employs 5,000 people directly and indirectly and which is incredibly important to jobs in Grimsby,” said Ms Onn, an opposition minister.

“So yes, we can pursue the options for fishing but it must not be at the cost of the jobs that already exist.”

Read more: Will our fishermen catch a break at last from Brexit vote?

Richard Corbett, pictured left, leader of the Labour MEPs in Brussels, echoed the Grimsby MP’s sentiments during his visit to the town last week. He was one of the panellists during the European Parliament’s fisheries debate at Grimsby Town Hall on Friday.

Speaking afterwards, Mr Corbett said any gains made in the catching sector by pulling out of the CFP could in fact be undone by leaving the single market and customs union.

It could mean that, even if Grimsby men (or women for that matter) decide to start-up a fishing business in lieu of the extra quota available after Brexit, their North Sea haul could prove difficult to sell.

People in the UK do not tend to be fans of eating the fish their fishermen catch – species such as mackerel and herring – and so sellers export the majority of it to the EU where the fish are more desired. In turn, the cod and haddock we love to batter and have with chips tends to be imported in.

“Most of what we catch we export,” said Mr Corbett, MEP for Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire. “Yet it is the Government’s intention that we leave the customs union, meaning red tape and hold ups – and that is bad news for the fishing industry.

“That could outweigh any gain we receive in increasing the amount of fish we can catch.”

Martin Vickers, Tory MP for Cleethorpes, was one of those who argued that fishing could make a comeback if voters opted to leave the EU at the 2016 referendum.

And while he reckons those opportunities will present themselves once the UK is outside the CFP, he said North East Lincolnshire is likely to find its economic uplift not in increased trawler numbers but in securing more investment into its highly-skilled industries.

“I would love to see the fishing industry revived,” said Mr Vickers. “My father, my grandfather and my uncle worked on the docks all their lives.

“Every family in Grimsby will have that connection – there is an enormous wealth of experience and cultural connection.

“And yes, we want access to our waters and to our resources but that isn’t going to, in and of itself, provide us with the wherewithal to recreate the past,” continued the backbencher

“We are talking about establishing a 200-mile limit or going to the median line for our fishing grounds – we are talking about fishing grounds we didn’t even fish.

“What we need in our area is highly skilled jobs and more investors to come with well-paid jobs. At the moment we have too few really big investors coming to the area.

“Yes we have the oil, chemical and renewables industries but we need more of that. They could provide hundreds of jobs when the sad reality is that a future fishing fleet will bring jobs in the dozens rather than the hundreds.”

Read more: Theresa May reveals EU wants never-done-before deal to continue fishing UK waters

Austin Mitchell, pictured right, Grimsby’s long-serving MP of nearly 40 years, who once changed his name to Haddock” to raise the plight of the fishing industry, returned to the town for last week’s fisheries debate.

A devout Brexiteer, he believes Grimsby’s young ones will return to fishing when the conditions are once again in their favour.

“Once it starts getting the investment and the jobs, people will come back to fishing,” he predicted.

“At the moment, it is not profitable to fish. We need control of our waters and then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy – people will turn to it if there is work available.”

Fishing is certainly in Grimsby’s blood – the stark memorial on the green outside Grimsby Minister reminds every passer-by of that.

The sculpture of a fishermen staring piercingly out to sea as he hauls his soaked net back aboard his trawler invokes the memory of a nostalgic but dangerous profession. 

The question now is whether that tradition, culture, knowhow and heritage will return after Brexit – or whether that sculpted fisherman will serve merely as reminder of what once was.

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