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SPECIAL REPORT

British fishermen battle ‘codfathers’, quotas - and Brexit delay

The first whelks of the season are hauled ashore in Ilfracombe.
The first whelks of the season are hauled ashore in Ilfracombe. Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

More than three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, the fishermen of Ilfracombe are thoroughly fed up. They were promised a greater share of fishing quotas, that Britain would “take back control” of its waters and become an independent coastal state. But they’ve seen little of the change they voted for. FRANCE 24 reports. 

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On a crisp October afternoon in a neglected corner of southwest England, the catch of the day was being hauled ashore from the Wharton brothers’ boat. Lobster pots sat stacked around the harbour. Families strolled in the sunshine and seagulls screamed overhead. 

More than three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, the fishermen of Ilfracombe were thoroughly fed up.

 “It’s a bloody disgrace,” said Scott Wharton, a gregarious 50-year-old who, along with his brother Paul, owns the two lobster-coloured trawlers slung up at the wharf.

Wharton, like the majority of British fishermen, voted to leave the EU. They were promised that smaller operators would have a greater share of fishing quotas, that Britain would “take back control” of its waters and become an independent coastal state. But in the three-and-a-half years since the referendum on Britain’s EU membership, they’ve seen little of the change they voted for.

Lobsters pots stacked around the harbour in Ilfracombe
Lobsters pots stacked around the harbour in Ilfracombe Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

Although the British fishing trade is booming, small-scale fishermen continue to struggle. The 20 to 30 trawlers that plied their trade from Ilfracombe’s harbour in the 1980s have dwindled to just two trawlers and three smaller potting boats today. Now the Wharton brothers are the last family-run trawling company on the West Coast.

“The quota balance is horrendous,” said Wharton as he wandered along a harbour humming with people and alive with the smell of freshly caught fish. A crate of dogfish – to be used as bait – was carried ashore and a child stopped to gape at a mass of silver-grey smooth hounds bound for London. Vans came by to pick up the last of the season’s lobsters and a steady trickle of buyers dropped in at the Whartons’ fish shop for cockles and whelks, dressed crab and prawns.

“We’re not saying to the French and the Belgians that they can’t come here. We’re European as much as they’re European. But don’t you think it’s a bit unfair that the French and the Belgians get 95% of the quota off here?” asked the fisherman, who voted to leave the EU largely because of “the unfairness of the quota system” and “the European bloody CFP (Common Fisheries Policy)”.

'Codfathers'

Ever since the UK joined the common market in the 1970s British fishermen have been clamouring for more of the quota. Leave campaigners such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson and prominent Conservative politician Michael Gove made much of the controversial CFP when they led their campaign to leave the EU. But the very British politicians who promised smaller operators lavish amounts of new quota have so far failed to resolve the quota inequality in the UK. As Wharton pointed out, the majority of British fishing quota – the allocation of which is a national decision – is owned by just a handful of fat-cat fishermen. 

Last year a Greenpeace report revealed that more than two-thirds of the UK’s fishing quota is controlled by just 25 businesses – who they dubbed “codfathers” – and that 50% of the British fishing quota was owned by foreign interests. One of the largest quota-holders was named as a flagship in the 2016 “Brexit flotilla” that sailed up the Thames with then-UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Gove, who served as the UK’s environment secretary until recently, vowed in July 2018 that the UK was “taking back control” of British waters. But buried in a white paper on the new government’s fisheries policy was a line that said, “We do not intend to change the method for allocating existing quota”. Only new quota – which the government promises to obtain after Brexit – will be allocated more fairly.  

Anyone seeking to snap up extra British quota has to buy it at inflated prices, further adding to the consolidation of the UK fishing market. Smaller operators like the Whartons, who’ve been working at sea since they were 16, end up with a very small slice of the pie. “It’s a rich man’s game,” said Gavin Vaughan, a 41-year-old Welshman who works on the Wharton brothers’ boat. “Whoever’s got the biggest cheque book wins,” he added. Vaughan, who works part-time as a scaffolder to pay the bills, would like to see the quota model completely stripped down and restructured.  “It’s corrupt, it doesn’t work at all,” he said. 

Freshly caught dogfish -- to be used as bait for catching whelks -- in the harbour at Ilfracombe
Freshly caught dogfish -- to be used as bait for catching whelks -- in the harbour at Ilfracombe Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

Fishermen looking to break into the industry are crippled by the cost of quotas, vessels and licences, explained Ben Bengey, a blond, baby-faced 23-year-old, who was recently named Young Fisherman of the Year.  Bengey, who can’t afford to buy quota, charters boats in the summer and fishes for whelks in winter – since whelks, like all shellfish, are currently quota-free. The freshly caught whelks are processed first at Combe Fisheries in Barnstaple, then sent on to the Far East: China, Japan, and Korea. “They eat whelks like we eat crisps,” said Bengey with a grin. But species such as ray, plaice, Dover sole, sea bass, and cod – the French have 80% of the cod quota in the Channel – are subject to stringent rules on catching. 

'Asleep at the wheel'

British “civil servants have been asleep at the wheel”, said Jeremy Percy, director of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, which campaigns on behalf of small-scale fleets. “They've allowed quota to become just another commodity that can be bought and sold, which has allowed far sharper and more far-seeing, often foreign corporations to buy up UK quota and the vessels and licences.”

The North Devon Fishermen’s Association continues to press the Department of the Environment for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for greater quota equality and for smaller operators to have a larger slice of the pie, said their president Tony Balls in a phone call to FRANCE 24. However, Balls also remained hopeful that once Britain left the EU, they would be able to snap up more of the European quota.

 Others were less optimistic  about how easy it would be to obtain better fishing rights during the Brexit negotiations. “Where someone’s getting more then someone’s getting less,” said Percy. “France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Ireland are sure as hell not going to take that lying down.” He referred to a clause of UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) that overrides the CFP, and that states that whoever as a nation has habitually fished in waters of another nation has the right to carry on fishing there. “So I’m absolutely certain that those nations will continue to fish here and that it will all end up in the courts.” And he warned against Britain blocking French fishermen’s access to their waters, explaining that the small-scale fleet largely depends on their access to European markets. “If we seek to reduce access to, for instance, French fishermen, you can guarantee, they’ll close down the ports in France overnight.”

Fisherman Ben Bengey in the harbour at Ilfracombe on Tuesday 8 October, 2019.
Fisherman Ben Bengey in the harbour at Ilfracombe on Tuesday 8 October, 2019. Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

Bengey was more bullish. “Britain don’t have any backbone at the moment,” he said after helping a friend bring his lobster pots ashore. “As you see in the last year with the scallop wars (a clash between Cornish and French fishermen over access to scallops in the Channel) and all that. When the French boats hit all of our boats. We came out.” He acknowledged that money from the EU had recently allowed him to buy lifejackets but said it was “stuff I could have afforded off my own bat”. Scott Wharton took a similarly punchy line with the French. “If the French aren’t going to buy our fish,” he said, “I tell you what Mr Macron, we’re not going to buy your wine.”

Some suggested the negotiations could be done on a quid pro quo basis. “It might be ‘you give us a few more cuttlefish and we'll take a bit more haddock’ or something like that”, suggested Dr Christopher Huggins from the University of Suffolk, who is part of a project team looking at the impact of Brexit on UK fisheries policy. Huggins also saw reason for optimism in that, “smaller fishing concerns are starting to get a bit of attention. You're starting to hear a more diverse range of voices within the fishing industry.” Griffin Carpenter, a specialist in fisheries at the New Economics Foundation, was similarly upbeat, seeing “some energy in government to reform the system, and actually make UK law more fitting for the small-scale sector and thriving coastal communities”.             

Percy was more cynical. “I think at this stage of the game, they could promise and will promise anybody anything,” he said of Boris Johnson “They’d have you believe that fish were going to fall from the sky.

 “Three years on and I’ve read everything there is to read, spoken to various politicians, and we still really don't know what's going to happen either on a national basis, or in fact, from the industry point of view,” Percy continued. “But the day after the referendum I was down on the South Coast talking to some fishermen. A fisherman said to me ‘Jerry we got screwed going into the common market and we'll get screwed coming out’. And as I speak, I have no reason still to disbelieve him.” 

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