Fishy Facts: Three things about the UK fishing industry that Mr Farage would rather you didn’t know

One of the more peculiar aspects of this on-going Brexit saga is the role ‘fish’ have played in the debate. Earlier this week, Nigel Farage and Jacob Hake-Cod went down to the Thames and chucked a load of haddock in the river to highlight ‘EU quota policies’ which cause millions of tonnes of perfectly good fish to get thrown back in the sea every year despite the best efforts of the EU to stop it. “Control of our fishing” seems to be a bit of an obsession in some quarters – presumably because it speaks to the hearts and stomachs of a fish and chip loving island nation.

The Ladybird/Brexit view of the romantic fisherman

Emotion is a powerful factor in the Brexit debate and the idea of the ‘noble fisherman’ going out in all weathers to get a little fishy for a little dishy – plays to that narrative. Quotas exist for a reason of course. Trawler-men aren’t farmers but plunderers – who don’t sow what they harvest – and without restrictions certain types of fish would inevitably be driven to extinction.

But who is interested in details when you can have a photo opportunity on a fishing boat – and get Jacob to come along for larks.

Anyway for the 2.5% of Britons who are curious about some actual facts here are 3 things about the UK fishing industry that Mr Farage would perhaps rather you didn’t know.

ONE – our fish don’t know they’re British. Yes it’s true – unbelievably many ‘British fish’ have yet to be informed of the fact and accordingly go swimming off into French, Spanish, Icelandic and anyone else’s waters. Mackerel in particular seems to have no respect whatsoever for maritime boundaries – the Remoaner of the brine. Leave get very excited about the fact that other EU fishermen can pull ‘our fish’ from ‘our’ waters but under current agreements UK fishermen can do likewise. As it is, we currently export around 75% of ‘our’ seafood to the EU because it’s stuff we don’t like to eat like cuttlefish and megrim sole – and import the cod, haddock and plaice we actually want. This could have a devastating effect on the price of your fish and chips in a few months’ time – particularly if tariffs kick in – but at least you’ll be able to eat your sovereignty wrapped up in your blue passport. Salt and vinegar anyone?

fish and chips
A UK staple – but Brexit will probably add £ to your fish and chips

TWO – fishing is an industry that makes up a tiny fraction of the UK economy accounting for just 0.07% of GDP. To put that in context Nissan UK alone adds ten times more to GDP than the entire fishing sector. Twice as many people work for Poundland than work as fishermen. Now I love a nice picturesque boat bouncing about on the waves as much as the next person – but concentrating attention on this tiny sector is fairly crazy when you consider that the poultry industry alone (worth £3.3bn) is three times bigger. Truth is – Brits don’t eat that much fish and are extremely unadventurous when they do. The reason you never hear Mr Farage talking about chickens and turkeys is because Brexit will have a devastating effect on this sector and poultry slaughter houses aren’t as evocative as men in yellow oilskins tossing about on the sea. Fishing is an industry that plays to notions of heritage and our island history – but in economic terms it is almost absurdly irrelevant.

Poultry – worth 3 times more to UK economy than fish

THREE – forget your ladybird books and the Old Man and The Sea. Modern fishing is an industry. Three companies own nearly two thirds of England’s fishing quota and one of those, Andrew Marr International (no relation to BBC Marr) owns 12%. The Marr family are hugely rich – listed 855th on The Sunday Times rich list in 2016. There do remain many smaller operators of course and they too will want to be making as much money as they can off the biggest hauls possible….. because we are not talking about nostalgia here – it is an industry. Now Brexit may be in the financial interests of the Marrs and a few fishermen (although it probably isn’t) – but driving the UK off a cliff so a fishing vessel in Whitstable can bleed the seas dry is not in the interests of the vast majority of the British people – or perhaps even the fishermen themselves.

As John Sauven of Greenpeace said a couple of years ago –

“Brexit cheerleaders like Nigel Farage are cynically exploiting the legitimate anger of many British fishermen for political gain. The root of the problem lies in London, not Brussels. Quitting the EU will only condemn the industry to years of wrangling over new fisheries agreements, with no guarantee of a better deal for fishers or stronger protections for our seas.”

Here endeth the lesson.

fisherman's friend
Farage isn’t either

5 thoughts on “Fishy Facts: Three things about the UK fishing industry that Mr Farage would rather you didn’t know

  1. The EU fisherman would not come to UK waters because the Fish stocks are worth the journey. If they could get their catch without travelling so far they would do so.

    I don’t think it matters that the proportion of GDP from fishing is low in comparison to other industries, These are peoples livelihoods and they do matter.

    In the days before we joined the EU we did not need fishing quotas because the sea surrounding the British Isles were not over fished. I see no evidence that the situation will be any different after we leave the EU.

    Your predictions are absurd “so a fishing vessel in Whitstable can bleed the seas dry” come on be serious. Have you ever seen a fishing vessel from Whitstable?


    1. Yes I used to live in Whitstable. I’m sorry but it’s absurd to say that in the days before the EU we didn’t need fishing quotas… have you never heard of the Cod Wars?


  2. I used to be one of those hearty fellows in yellow oilskins being tossed about on the sea, for nearly twenty years I did it. I then worked for twelve years developing a network of Fishery Observers for CEFAS, collecting catch and discard data at sea.
    In general I agree with your comments, not necessarily with the emotive delivery (there isn’t a vessel in Whitstable capable of “bleeding the seas dry” and as far as I am aware no fishery in the world has driven a “fish” species to extinction) but this is semantics and as such, in this debate, somewhat moot, though one should remain cautious of the imact of words.
    I absolutely agree with your comment regarding GDP without checking the figures but the rub here, and it is a big one, is this; Though fishing might not mean much to the average British urbanite, in the small often isolated coastal communities that serve this industry it is a very big deal indeed. In communities where tourism (a terrible employer for local people, minimum wage, seasonal and often zero hour contracts) and multinational supermarkets are often the main employers, then fishing is/was able to provide an opportunity to live an independent life, well paid and free of the petty beaurocracy that infiltrates many “shore” jobs. This “independence” shouldn’t be underplayed.
    On your observation that fishings main problems lie much closer to home I couldn’t agree with more. MAFF/DEFRA through the Marine Management Agency/Organisation (MMO) and vicariously through local Inshore Fisheries Conservation Associations (IFCA’s) has systematically mis-managed the British fishing industry to the point where small scale “Artisanal” fishermen are being driven out of business. These are supposed to be the very Low impact “environmentally friendly” fisheries we as a nation should be trying to support.
    It might be worth re-capping the fishing industries journey through EEC/EU membership:
    1. During the fisheries Reference period, a time prior to the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) where member states recorded their catches in order to create a starting point for quota management) UK fishermen were advised by MAFF to under report their catches or even report them as other species (the premise being that we didn’t want to let “Jonny Foreigner” know what riches we had on our doorstep!) and there were riches.
    2. The reference period fell in the mid 70’s, during a time now known to fisheries science as the “Gadoid Outburst”. This was a phenomena that was created by the coincidence of high phyto planktonic content of the Northsea (caused by pollution from the industrial rivers of Europe) and the catastrophic collapse of the Northsea Herring stock. When Cod/Haddock/Whiting (all classed as Gadoid species) eggs hatch they live their first few months in a larval state suspended in the water column where they feed on plankton. As eggs, and through this planktonic stage they are predated by Herring (seeing the picture yet?). As the Herring stock became ever more depleted so their predation on Gadoid young had less and less impact on mortality. The overall effect on Gadoid breeding success was phenomenal to the point where the populations of these Gadoid species was grossly inflated. All at a time when the EEC was recording catch rates to set future quota management rules to.
    3. “Jonny Foreigner” was advised by his government to over inflate his catches, to the point where in France alone the discrepancy between what was landed and what was reported is estimated at £20million/year (in the 70’s!).
    4. This meant that when quota allocation to member states was introduced some states received a far larger share than they should have been entitled to. This is the river down which the UK fishery has drifted ever since.
    5. As the Northsea was cleaned up through the eighties and nineties the amount of phyto plankton began to decline rapidly and at the same time after many years of a moretorium on Herring fishing the Herring stock began to return to pre collapse numbers and so the “Gadoid Outburst” fell into decline as mortality from natural predation and fishing effort increased. Very quickly fishery scientist began to see the spectre of overfishing rear its head. At this point a curb on fleet size was proposed, by the EU, each member state taking whatever actions they felt necessary to acheive a fleet reduction. DEFRA introduced a period of “Decommissioning” a period where fishing vessel owners were offered scrap value for the vessel but were allowed to keep the fish quota their vessel had earned via a policy introduced earlier called “Track record”. This effectively allowed DEFRA to de-commission 64% of the UK off shore fleet on the cheap.
    Welcome to the reign of the slipper skipper and the fisheries we have now. The majority of quota held by people, often no longer fishing, who trade their annual quota allocation through Producers Organisation (PO’s) to fisherman engaged in the catching sector. We now have a fishery where, if I wanted to catch Hake for example, I would have to lease in Hake at £400/tonne before I could go to sea and catch it to sell at approximately £2800/tonne. Add this “extra” cost to the very high running costs of a fishing boat and well, you do the Math!
    In the 2000’s DEFRA moved the MMO from Whitehall to Newcastle, during that transition period the department lost 80%of it’s longest serving most senior staff, replaced by well meaning, well educated people with no experience or understanding of what went before.
    Sorry to bang on here, the industry has infuriated me only slightly less than DEFRA’s incompetence. Farage’ Snake Oil salesmans patronage has done nothing for the industry and yet very few of my fishing colleagues seem able to see through the smoke and mirrors charm of the man. In the Southeast he seems able to tap into a particularly rich and strange seam of “patriotism” that goes back as far the Magna Carter! Go figure, I don’t get it but it is very strong in the Eastern Channel and Southern Northsea fisheries.
    Whilst not a fan of Greenpeace I wholeheartedly agree with John Sauven, the fishing industries ills and ailments lie in the most part at the door of DEFRA and not the EU.
    Here endeth………..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jon needs to be on every programme, article etc when the fish debate is brought up. Magnificent critical analysis of what went on. I have my suspicions that the fishing industry is not the only area where this historical skullduggery will come back to bite us on our soon-to-be non-EU arses


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