Richard Brewer is a fifth-generation fisherman who has worked on the seas for more than 40 years. Today his trawler, the White Heather VI, is the last fishing boat left in the now eerily quiet Whitby harbour on the Yorkshire coast.
“We used to be a big white fish port, it was a hive of activity, you could have come down here just six or seven years ago and you could barely move for all the forklift trucks shifting fish. Now you’ve just got a few lobster pots,” says 64-year-old Brewer.
Britain’s fishing industry had been struggling to survive, and its last hope, according to most of the nation’s fishermen, was Brexit. By leaving the EU and excluding European trawlers from Britain’s waters it should have been possible to save our fishing industry, they argued.
Last week those hopes were dashed when talks with the EU on fishing in British waters ended in a stalemate. “When we were given the chance to vote for Brexit we thought it was a chance to get some reality back into the industry,” said Brewer. “But my biggest fear has always been we would get done over by the exit deal, and lo and behold it’s come to pass.”
With the fishing industry already on its knees, Brewer said he now feared continental fleets would still be allowed into British waters in exchange for Britain being given wider access to the European market. The government says a deal has not yet been finalised, but Scottish Conservative MP Ross Thomson, a prominent Brexiter, said the current situation was “unacceptable”, as it meant “sovereignty over our waters” would be “sacrificed for a trade deal”.
The feeling of betrayal in Whitby was palpable last week in just about every word spoken by its fishermen, including those from Brewer’s son, Stuart, who has worked for his father for almost 20 years.
“We know it’s a dying industry, but Brexit gave us one last shot and they have messed it up,” he said. “We’ve been sold out before and this was their chance to get it right and they’re making a meal out of it. I don’t know one fisherman that was consulted, no skippers or anyone I know. No one got asked once how will it benefit you; we all voted to leave because we thought it couldn’t get any worse, and they’ve gone and done the same again.”
The family business now relies on doing “guard work”, protecting underwater cables and pipes for offshore oil rigs and wind turbines, to get by. It has been two years since they last went out to fish. Richard Brewer said there were still plenty of men in the town that wanted to go to sea, but there was no work for them.
These views are shared by fishermen in Scotland. “I’ve always been worried, but now I’m very concerned,” said Peter Bruce, a skipper based in Peterhead on the north-east coast. “Most of us are not Tory supporters, but they were our only option to leave the common fisheries policy and the EU. Now they are reneging on the deal. I don’t think they will ever be forgiven by the fishing community if they go back on the promises made in the past few months.”
Bruce said that reported unhappiness of nations like France, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Portugal that the withdrawal agreement did not include a guarantee on access to UK waters did not surprise him. “There are a lot of negotiations still to go and we’ve never been under any illusion that countries like Denmark and Spain were going to play hardball on this. It’s no surprise because our waters are everything to them, and if they can’t get into them, then their fishing industry has a big problem. It was never about stopping EU boats completely, but if we stick to the status quo then that is unforgivable.”
Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, has given Theresa May’s Brexit deal his qualified support, but told the Observer that he sympathised with his members’ concerns. “I’m not going to defend the government. The unease, disquiet and mistrust expressed by members is completely understandable, but I can’t defend the outcome of negotiations that are yet to happen. But I can say that [exiting the CFP] is the biggest opportunity for us in our organisation’s history, and we will not let this go.”
Let’s have it!!