Melanie Onn: Britain’s fishing industry has been left in the dark over Brexit

Posted On: 
16th January 2017

Despite the bold promises of the Leave campaign, our fishing communities have heard nothing from ministers on their plans for the future

Grimsby Town FC fans. Despite years of decline, the fishing industry remains central to the town’s identity, writes Melanie Onn

Over the last few years, my town of Great Grimsby has seen a once-thriving fishing industry decline and shed thousands of jobs. At its peak, you could line up every fishing trawler from the Grimsby docks and walk along them a mile out to sea. There are now less than 20 trawlers operating here, and our town is still feeling the impact.

Grimsby has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and one in three of those who are in work earn less than the living wage. But fishing remains a big part of the town’s identity – Grimsby Town FC supporters chant ‘FISH’ every match – which is why it was the theme of every prominent Leave supporter’s visit to my constituency during the referendum campaign.

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People in fishing communities across the country were given reason to be hopeful for the future. David Davis visited my constituency for a Vote Leave flotilla along the Humber (Bob Geldof stayed at home for this one), and said: “If we leave the EU, we can help our industry recover, taking our cue from Iceland.” George Eustice said that Brexit would allow Britain to “re-establish national control [of our waters] for 200 nautical miles”.

These promises were not made by campaigners who had no prospect of being in a position to follow them through. Mr Davis is now the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union; Mr Eustice remains as the minister with responsibility for fisheries; while Andrea Leadsom, another leading light in the Vote Leave campaign, is his boss as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They could not be better placed to implement what they pledged just a few short months ago.

It is therefore disappointing that we have heard nothing in six months from the government on their plans for the industry. To deliver on the promises made to British fishermen, the industry needs to be at the top of the government’s agenda.

However, answers to my parliamentary questions revealed that when the Norwegian foreign minister visited Britain last month, none of the four government ministers who met with him raised fisheries once. Given that Norway trades freely with the EU but has opted out of the Common Fisheries Policy, the government might have wanted to discuss how to replicate a similar deal for Britain.

I have asked ministers in the House of Commons and in correspondence how they planned to deliver on their promises, but I have received no answers and no assurance that the government has thought about how it can secure what communities like Grimsby expect.

Although it has been very easy for Leave campaigners to blame the EU for the decline of the fishing industry, their version of history is partial at best. The sharpest fall in employment of fishermen came between 1948 and 1960, before Britain joined the EEC. The CFP isn’t perfect, and the UK could benefit from no longer having to abide by it. But it is selling a false hope to suggest that simply by leaving the EU we will see a return to the industry we had in the 1950s.

For the UK fisheries industry to see a good outcome from Brexit, it needs to be a government priority. We cannot simply impose a 200-mile limit to achieve what the fisheries minister promised. He will need to win it in negotiations with the EU. That will mean sacrificing other things. Which is why the government’s silence has been so worrying – it suggests that fisheries are not being given the importance required to secure what was promised.

The seafood industry that exists today in Great Grimsby is mainly food processing, manufacturing and trading. Grimsby fish market remains the largest in the country, and huge quantities of fish are imported from Iceland and Norway to be processed and then sold in Britain or exported to mainland Europe.

The global nature of these businesses mean they are especially vulnerable to changes in the value of the pound, or any imposition of tariffs in the future. I hate to imagine the anger that would emerge if, instead of a return to the industry of the past, Brexit weakened what we have today.    

Melanie Onn is Labour MP for Great Grimsby