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Luke Pollard: Fishers Have Every Right To Be Angry Over The Brexit Deal

The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has dubbed the government's trade deal ar “miniscule, marginal, paltry, pathetic” | Adobe Stock

7 min read

Labour's shadow environment secretary says that British fishers have been betrayed by Brexit – and he has a vision for how to turn their trade around. He talks to Georgina Bailey.

Luke Pollard is a fishing nerd. He knows it, his staff know it, and after 55 minutes talking with him over Zoom, I do too.

However, he believes that he is in a small minority in Parliament – you could count those among his colleagues who deeply understand fishing on one hand, he tells me. This is part of the reason why fishers have been “screwed”; not just by the Brexit trade deal, but by successive years of government policy that left fishing communities behind, he says. 

“They don’t just feel angry, they feel completely deflated… It’s like being winded, they feel utterly let down,” Pollard says of the fishers he has spoken to in his native Plymouth, where he has been the MP since 2017. 

“They have been used and rolled out in countless media appearances over many years, by many politicians arguing that Brexit would solve their problems. And when it came down to it, they were sold down the river,” he explains. 

“And I think the fear that fishers had, that they were screwed over on the way into the EU – largely with a poor quota share – and that they would be screwed over on the way out. The promises made to support them, I’m afraid, haven’t been worth the paper they’re been written on. I think fishers have every right to feel angry at the moment.” 

While the UK has successfully negotiated its own fisheries management system, the government had gone into the Brexit negotiations asking for an 80% reduction in the EU’s access to the UK’s fish quota. In the end, the EU’s quota was only reduced by 25%. As a result, UK-registered boats’ share of the catch in UK waters will increase from roughly a half to two-thirds phased over the next five and a half years, worth about £145m. 

Fishers are also dismayed at EU access to inshore fisheries (six to 12 nautical miles from the UK coast) and, as of yet, there has been no distant fishing deal agreed with Norway, Greenland or the Faroes.

Despite the government’s positive spin, the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has dubbed the deal “miniscule, marginal, paltry, pathetic”. Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said the deal “fell very far short of the commitments and promises that were made… we are now a coastal state with one hand tied behind our back”.

Although the deal successfully avoided tariffs, there is an increased regulatory burden on UK fishers, who export most of their catch. Since 1 January, UK shipments have been turned away or destroyed at the French border due to inaccuracies in the documentation – which now includes SPS checks, export certificates, and a system where UK small boats have to estimate and log their catch on CatchApp (“an unmitigated disaster”, according to Pollard) before they land. 

“It’s not just an annoyance that adds extra cost... It fundamentally damages business,” Pollard says. The extent of new “British red tape” is far beyond  industry expectations, with fishers already struggling with the price of fish collapsing as restaurants shut in the pandemic. “Each one of those things isn’t in itself enough to sink the industry. But each one of those is a complication that makes doing business harder, and importantly, returning a profit in what has been a torrid year for fishing even more difficult.” 

I don’t think any part of the economy deserves to be promised something and then lied to. 1000 [fishing] jobs in Plymouth is a really significant part of our economy

I put it to Pollard that the government’s apparent “betrayal” of fishers wasn’t that surprising, given that as an industry it represents just 0.02% of the UK’s Gross Value Added. There are only around 12,000 fishers in the UK, plus another 19,000 full time jobs on-shore. 

“I don’t think any part of the economy deserves to be promised something and then lied to,” Labour’s shadow environment secretary responds. “1000 [fishing] jobs in Plymouth is a really significant part of our economy. That rural backbone that our agricultural jobs provide is a really important foundation for rural communities.”

Pollard believes the government must now use existing powers to revive fishing communities across the country in what he calls a “coastal renaissance”. This means a wholesale reset in UK fishing policy, with localised regulation reflecting differing needs around the country, investment in infrastructure and fishing quays, as well as support for those who want to get into fishing. The government has promised £100m of investment in the fishing fleet and fish processing capabilities, but both Pollard and the industry would like it to go much further – as he points out, updating Plymouth’s aging fish quay alone would cost £25m. 

Another challenge is guaranteeing that the UK quota means UK jobs – on and off shore. The UK government and devolved administrations have always been able to set provisions on UK fishing licenses, including crewing and landing requirements. However, EU membership allowed for quota to be sold by fishers across countries, and in 2019, 55% of England’s fishing quota value was caught by boats owned by Icelandic, Spanish and Dutch companies.

According to BBC research, in Wales, 85% of the quota is foreign owned, whereas in Scotland (which accounts for 60% of the UK quota) only 4% is foreign owned, and in Northern Ireland it falls to 2%. While most of the UK quota (400,000 tonnes of fish) is landed in the UK, between 200,000 and 300,000 tonnes is landed abroad.

While it may be legally challenging to reclaim UK quota that is already owned by foreign companies, the government is currently considering the results of a consultation on ensuring 70% of English quota catch is landed in English ports. Pollard would also like the additional quota that the UK fleet will gain over the next five years to be primarily distributed to smaller boats, who currently catch only 6% of the quota share. 

To both boost local economies and cut food miles, Pollard says the UK must start eating more of its own fish, rather than exporting two-thirds of our catch, and importing two-thirds of the fish we eat.

He puts the brunt of the responsibility on supermarkets stocking and promoting more British fish – and has recently written to them all to that effect. Pollard points to the success of the Red Tractor kitemark for British meat. “We’ve just become accustomed that people will buy the fish whether it’s British or not. And so it’s about exposing the British people to the realities of it. There are amazing fish on our doorstep. Some amazing flavours that we don’t normally taste and some brilliant fish that will support people in their communities.”

The person who’s loudest about creating a South West Research Group of Tory MPs is the Labour MP in Plymouth

For Pollard, supporting coastal and rural communities must form a key tenet of Labour’s 2024 manifesto. In 1997, Labour had 179 rural MPs; now it has only 17. “The first thing that the party’s got to do is turn up. Because we have effectively gifted the Tories huge swathes of the country in looking like an urban party.”

Rather than “rural proofing” policies that are designed first for urban areas and then adapted to rural needs, Labour expects to set out a “thorough rural agenda” this year, in which Pollard promises a “compelling offer” on farming, rural housing, roads, transport and public services. He is determined that Labour, rather than the Tories, will be seen as the party of the countryside by 2024, he says.

Pollard believes his native South West is the perfect example of a region taken for granted by the Tory government, with Conservative MPs who “won’t rock the boat”.  You can take nearly every issue being spoken about in the North, such as the lack of infrastructure and opportunities, and apply it to the South West, one of the poorest regions in the country. However, in direct contrast to Jake Berry and the Northern Research Group exerting pressure on the government, “the person who’s loudest about creating a South West Research Group of Tory MPs is the Labour MP in Plymouth,” he claims. 

His opposite number, George Eustice, can expect an ongoing fight: Labour will be targeting his Cornwall constituency in 2024. “That is the scale of the challenge. But it’s a challenge worth rising to.”

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