Wishy-fishy in a dishy

Boats in Mevagissey Harbour. Photo by Nifanion on Wikimedia

Much of the British attitude to fishing, and especially to foreign fishermen, is based on prejudice and ignorance. We need to see ourselves as others see us.

Fishing, eh? Symbol of Brexit Britain! Sovereignty! Taking Back Control! Getting our moat back! It’s OUR ‘English’ Channel!

It’s also La Manche according to those damned Frenchies over there – over somewhere. Wherever. Even shipping forecast areas have been purloined by the French.

Pas de Calais for Dover. Antifer for Wight. Casquets for Portland. Ouessant for Plymouth.

And the Dutch call Forties Fladen!

What a cheek, eh? We want our forecast back! It’ll be easy with German Bight. Post Brexit it’ll probably be renamed Boris Blight (rhyming slang).

I’ll happily flag-wave for British fishing, Cornish fishing certainly, but it annoys me hugely when fishing seems to be the flag-wave for total dolts such as Falange, Govefish, and Smogg, never mind landlocked Brexiteers and puce-faced home counties tweedsters in leafy Kent, sobbing with nostalgia for the gunboat blather of Britannia Rules the Waves. Farage, Gove and co. would benefit mightily from being locked down for a week in the fish room of an old-school Concarneau trawler off the Labadie Bank in a Coup de Vent Huit, while diesel fumes leak out of the engine room and enhance the stench of last trip’s fermenting bilges with value-added pong de niff.

There is no doubt that compared with EU coastal nations, British fishermen have suffered from the carve-up of access areas and the perceived strictures of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

But it’s our own sodding fault!

It was the Tory Party under Ted Heath that sold out the UK’s fishing industry when we first joined the European Economic Community, as it was known, in 1973. Apart from cod ‘n chips in yesterday’s vinegar-sodden Daily Mail, fish and fishing meant very little to the UK government and populace in those days, so long as East Coast sidewinders could carry on hammering Icelandic waters for cod.

Until… Oh dear, in 1975 those pesky Icelanders kicked us out because they wished to protect a key industry. (Fish catches make up a direct 17% of Iceland’s current GDP compared to the UK’s fishing contribution of 0.12%. Add on processing and support industries, and Iceland’s fishing GDP contribution just about doubles.)

For years – until gastro pubs and celeb chefs rocked up – Brits turned up their noses up at smelly, fishy things. Meanwhile, the Bretons, the Basques, the Dutch, the Belgians, the Norwegians and the Danes were nurturing their fleets and fishermen. UK fishermen were more or less left on their own. Maggie Thatcher even tried to strip the British fishing fleet down to dead low water as soon as she realised that fishermen were worth very few votes for the neo-liberal, trickle-down con-trick that was her monetarist project.

Much of the British attitude to fishing, and especially to foreign fishermen, is based on prejudice and ignorance. The populist view of fishing has always been – well, fishy. It’s always the French and the Spanish who break the rules, attack our boats, etc, etc. Not so. Fishing is a hugely complex and complicated industry, and every fishing nation blames other fishing nations for their ills.

Consider this: In the major Basque fishing port of Ondarroa (where you risk being thrown in the harbour if you dare to speak Spanish) I was told once that Basque fishermen complained that Cornish vessels in Biscay fished destructively. Many Basques believed that Cornish crews were partly made up of “convicts” released from prison to work as deckhands for the duration of a trip. They really did believe this. Tae see oorsels’ as ithers see us, eh? When we seek ‘sovereign exceptionalism’, we lose the gift of mutual understanding.

“ondarroa” by _perSona_ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I really hope that UK fishermen prosper from whatever Brexit agreement, or non-agreement, finally extrudes from Johnson’s fundament. It will either be a no deal, which would be catastrophic for UK fishing, or a compromise over continuing access for foreign vessels for several years ahead. Any such agreement will be easily extended by both sides, whittled away and further compromised.

If a deal emerges it will be trumpeted as BORISLY FISHTASTIC! and solid as a Eustice Scotch egg. The long-term price of it is another matter, especially when it comes to the nitty-gritty of exports, tariffs, licensing, and the flag of convenience vessels that hold UK licenses, aka ‘quota hoppers’ – their licences sold to them by British fishing interests. One such foreign-owned but UK-registered trawler legally fishing our waters is said to take 25% of England’s quota alone. Try reversing that kind of arrangement.

How Johnson, Gove and crew hope to organise and pay for fishery protection, short of a canoe and a broken harpoon gun, is anyone’s guess. Never mind that fishermen of all nations know how to get around the rules while some have no qualms about full frontal confrontation, regardless of ‘sovereign’ limits, exclusive zones, and tattered flag-waving by wrinkled old sea dogs on the rolling seas of the ‘Red Wall’ and the South Downs. The UK government’s stance on fishing is largely cosmetic for the benefit of Brexit jingoists.

It may be too late to achieve the kind of fishery the UK might have had before Heath sacrificed the trade in 1973. To now win control of viable access to extended fishing grounds and to a larger share of fish would require a massive expansion of Britain’s fishing industry and fleet, and a major expansion of effective fishery protection. Great news if it happens! But this would require an equally massive injection of government funding and commitment, which this morally bankrupt government has neither the cash nor the intention of making.

Never, ever forget: it was the Tory party that sold off our fishing industry from 1973 onwards and permanently weakened our position among European fishing nations.

And never forget that fish have tails. They belong to the sea, and they can shift in and out of ‘territorial’ waters in no time. And they don’t speak English.