Paul's Column: "you shall have a fishy when the boat comes in"

03 July 2018

My first attempt at going to university was an unsuccessful sojourn at London University and lasted but ten weeks.  It sits in my memory as the beginning of a long series of encounters with southerners who on hearing my Tyneside accent would spontaneously burst into song with variations of:

Dance to your Daddy sing to your mammy

Dance to your Daddy my little man

You shall have a fishy on a little dishy

You shall have a fishy when the boat comes in”.

“When The Boat Comes In” was a 1970s TV hit which had entered deep into the popular consciousness, in part through its theme tune of the same name sung by Gateshead lad Alex Glasgow.

I found myself humming ‘When The Boat Comes In’ after a recent visit to the Northumberland Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority at Blyth.  With Brexit looming like a creature from the deep (we haven’t seen it yet but we all know, Jaws-like, it’s coming) those who make a living from the North Sea here in the North East are understandably wondering what impact our impending departure from the EU will have on their way of life.

Only a small amount of wet fish is landed on the North East coast, mainly at North Shields, by trawlers that fish mostly outside the 6 mile limit where they have to adhere to existing quotas.  The big problem for the government’s Brexit fishing strategy is that if it wants to restrict access to UK waters by vessels from EU countries then the EU is likely to respond by refusing access to its markets for our fish exports. This would be hugely problematic because 80% of the fish caught by the UK is exported, mainly to EU countries.

Everyone agrees that fishing should be done in a sustainable way but as my Labour colleague from Yorkshire Richard Corbett MEP, who sits on the EU parliament’s fisheries committee has pointed out, “Fish have a frustrating habit of swimming where they wish, with scant regard for borders”.  Around 100 migratory species swim between UK and EU waters so we will need to negotiate with the EU to agree quotas and allowable catches. This is also required under international law, not least the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As with so many areas of Brexit we are going to find ourselves tearing up an existing agreement only to have to sit down and negotiate a similar replacement. 

Britain’s fishing sector faces further problems if the government carries out its intention to leave the single market and customs union. If those who fish and process have to pay tariffs to sell into the EU market, which currently they don’t, it is likely they will lose sales. As with fish nationally, 80% of Northumbrian crab and lobster is exported to the EU, mainly to Spain, France and Portugal. Being outside the customs union would mean that every shipment of crab and lobster for export would require a health certificate from DEFRA, issued 5-14 days in advance with exact weights per box, a certificate of origin, and have a veterinary officer on site to sign certificates to seal the shipment with secure tags. This will push up costs for Northumbrian exporters as every 20kg sent to Madrid will be subject to a new 20% tariff and £350-£600 cost for a vet. It is a huge administrative and financial burden that the fishing industry simply does not face at present.

Another worry for those making their living from the sea is what will happen to the satellite navigation of ships if we cannot be part of the EU’s satellite navigation system, Galileo?  Already up and running, once fully operational in 2020 it will provide accurate position, navigation and timing information to be used by governments, citizens and business, including the fishing industry.  The British government has said it will launch its own navigation system, though this would be extremely costly and would take years to implement.

Fishing is yet one more Brexit issue where nobody, including the government, knows what on earth is going to happen. We can only hope that the final deal ensures that “You shall have a fishy when the boat comes in”.

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