Ninety-six percent of British fishermen voted for Brexit, saying they wanted to "get their waters back" and break away from the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy, which they believe has damaged their industry. But with the Brexit deadline looming closer, British and other European fishermen who rely on the fish-rich seas of the British Isles are none the wiser as to how leaving the EU will affect their livelihoods.
British fishermen blame the EU's quota system, which sets catch limits per species, for preventing them from earning a decent living. They also want to see fewer boats from other EU countries fishing in Britain’s Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ), an area defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which stretches 200 nautical miles from the coastline. As long as the UK is in the EU, its EEZ is classed as common waters.
Our Olivia Belle in Ilfracombe, UK. © Alexandra Renard/France 24
Paul Wharton catching crabs and lobster off the Devonshire coast, UK. © Alexandra Renard/France 24
The Belgian crew of The Zilvermeeuw land their catch in Milford Haven, UK. © Alexandra Renard/France 24
But when it comes to the state of fishing post-Brexit, there are quite a few potential problems to anticipate. Overfishing could emerge if Britain stops adhering to the EU’s quotas, which have helped keep fish resources sustainable. British fishermen currently export 75 percent of their catch, mostly to the EU. If Britain loses free access to its biggest market, its fishermen will have to look elsewhere for buyers. Unfortunately, British consumers are largely uninterested in the cornucopia of species their fishermen catch. Imported cod, salmon and tuna are the most commonly consumed fish in the UK.
And with or without Brexit, the livelihoods of small-scale British fishermen are unlikely to improve unless the British government deals with the imbalance in quota ownership. Greenpeace UK has revealed that 29 percent of the UK's fishing quota is owned or controlled by just five families on the Sunday Times' Rich List. Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK, says: "Many of these companies were amongst those touting the opportunity to 'take back control' of our waters by leaving the EU. They're taking politicians and regular fishermen for a ride, because they know exactly who's in control. And the same politicians who slammed Europe for breaking Britain’s fishing sector are the ones restricting the majority of fishing quota to this handful of wealthy families. It’s a betrayal of Britain’s fishermen".
As Britain and the EU negotiate a Brexit deal, fishing rights are another sticking point which have so far left fishermen on both sides of the Channel in the dark, unable to plan for their futures.
Scott Wharton, a British fisherman, told FRANCE 24: "We’ve got no problem with foreign fishermen, the Belgians, French, Spanish. They’re trying to support their families, the same as us. It’s the policy-makers who need to put things right".