FURNACE, Scotland — The Brussels-hating fisherman has become a staple Brexit stereotype, but the U.K.s fishing industry is in reality profoundly split over Britains impending EU departure.
Think of an ardent Brexit supporter and you may well conjure up a fisherman dumping dead fish into the Thames or steering a trawler with Nigel Farage at its bow. Enthusiastic Leavers shout loudly about the need to “take back control” of British waters and right the “injustice” of Brussels-imposed quotas.
But there are many in the industry who take a different view, believing that Brexit could severely damage or destroy their livelihoods. The divide goes to the heart of a quandary for the U.K. in Brexit negotiations.
The chance to ditch the EUs Common Fisheries Policy and regain control of fishing rights has an obvious appeal. EU vessels currently take 750,000 metric tons of fish from U.K. waters annually: A haul that could be distributed among the British fleet. But the U.K. is heavily reliant on the EU market to sell its seafood — to the tune of £1.17 billion in 2016. So U.K. fishermen might win the right to catch more after Brexit, but they may not be able to sell it.
While highly valued in France, Italy and Spain, prawns arent traditionally part of the local diet since Scots prefer to eat fish | Kait Bolongaro/POLITICO
Its a dilemma that is particularly acute on Scotlands west coast. On the shoulder of Loch Fyne, the sea loch that drains the River Clyde, the hamlet of Furnace was once known for its iron furnace and quarry in a patchwork of farming and fishing communities in the region of Argyll and Bute.
Lewis MacMillan rows out to the middle of the loch where the boat he skippers, the Guess Again, bobs in the waves. Soft spoken with a Scottish burr, he has never felt the need to visit London. He is, however, painfully aware of how much decisions made in the capital will impact his livelihood.
“If theres a line-up of lorries at the border because of Brexit, well be in trouble. The prawns need to make it to Europe alive,” he says.
The 21-year-old grew up on the nearby island of Bute, where he started fishing during school holidays at 13. Today he catches prawns using creels, a traditional technique that uses a wire basket and a salted herring head to lure the shellfish inside.
“The French and Spanish pay a good price for these,” he explains, holding up a medium-sized prawn. “We dont really eat them in Scotland.” But key to the business is speed. The shellfish must make it to market alive to command a decent price. So any border delay could be disastrous.
“Even a short delay means fishermen dont get paid” — Alistair Sinclair, national coordinator of the Scottish Creel Fishermens Federation
Staples such as haddock, herring and mackerel make up a large portion of the Scottish landings, but shellfish is one of the most lucrative catches. The Scottish shellfish fleet brought ashore 14 percent of the fish and seafood haul in 2016 but it accounted for £166 million, or 30 percent of the catch value.
Back on the loch shore, Alistair Sinclair feeds bits of pancake to Henry, a swan the size of a bulldog, in his backyard. The native Glaswegian is the national coordinator of the Scottish Creel Fishermens Federation.
The 64-year-old says low-impact fishers and divers who focus on high-value products like shellfish will be hit if Brexit introduces border delays or tariffs.
Lewis MacMillan sorts prawns from other species such as stout lobster and crab which also get caught in the creel | Kait Bolongaro/POLITICO
“Hard borders would be a disaster for us. Most of our prawns are sent right away to Europe in lorries filled with salt water tanks so they stay alive. Thats why we get more money for our product and even a short delay means fishermen dont get paid,” he explains.
“Any tariffs would hurt our margins and profitability. It would also dismantle 20 years of perfecting the current system — overnight.”
Sinclair worries that officials are paying more attention to the louder Brexiteer voices in the fishing industry — notably east coast trawlermen who prioritize regaining access to waters — and have forgotten about smaller, more lucrative parts of the industry.
“The way Brexit is looking, our future could be wiped out by a signature,” he says.
Prawns, also known as langoustines, are a high-value species because they are delivered alive to Europe within 24 hours of being caught | Kait Bolongaro/POLITICO
Earlier this month, POLITICO obtained a leak of the U.K.s long-awaited fisheries white paper laying out its post-Brexit policy. It amounts to an uncompromising plan to follow through on Environment Secretary Michael Goves rhetoric of “taking back control” of waters.
The paper gives little hint of the possibility of compromise over the issue of access to markets, proposing to deal with it in a future trade deal. The EUs chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said the two issues must go hand in hand.
While these both might be opening bids in a negotiation that hasnt yet started, there are some in the Scottish industry who are concerned about the U.K.s Brexit stance.
Creel fishers use bait such as pieces of salted herring to attract shellfish into their wire basket traps | Kait Bolongaro/POLITICO
“In meetings we hear a lot about taking back control and thats one issue and its a positive impact,” says Elaine Whyte, executive secretary of the Clyde Fishermens Association.
“But issues were told arent strategic are. Theres no processing plants, theres no ice, the boats are 60 years old … even if we were to get more fish, how are we going to cope with that?”
Whytes association has represented fishers and communities on the west coast since 1934. A founding member of the Scottish Fishermens Federation (SFF), it split from the national industry body in March following a simmering dispute that was exacerbated by disagreement over how to approach the U.K.s EU departure.
The Clyde Fishermens Association is concerned about failing infrastructure and dwindling communities along the Scottish west coast. It objected to the Brexit stance taken by the SFF, whose membership is dominated by trawlers catching whitefish on the east coast.
Alistair Sinclair wants the U.K. government to work with Brussels to find a deal thats beneficial to all Scottish fishermen | Kait Bolongaro/POLITICO
That stance was reiterated in a statement from the SFF (issued jointly with the U.K.-wide National Federation of Fishermens Organizations), which said: “The EUs stated preference for a free trade deal in return for access to fish in U.K. waters and quota shares is an absurd attempt to maintain the current unbalanced arrangement which results in 60% of the U.K.s natural fish resources being given away. Acceptance of such an unprecedented and unprincipled link by U.K. negotiators would be regarded by the entire U.K. fishing industry as a gross betrayal.”
But the Clyde fishermen and creel fishers do not feel the national bodies are speaking for them. They say the Brexit discussion in the SFF became dominated by a few voices instead of a holistic perspective on how the industry would be affected.
Inverarary is the closest town to Furnace on Loch Fyne in western Scotland | Kait Bolongaro/POLITICO
“The system [inside the federation] was against the west coast of Scotland and its communities. So we were heading toward leaving [the SFF] and Brexit gave us this final push,” says Tommy Finn, vice chair of the organization.
Back on Loch Fyne, the prawns claws click as skipper MacMillan maneuvers his catch into neat rows. This batch will be sold to a Scottish buyer, who in turn sells it onward to the Continent.
“I wouldnt want to do anything but fishing,” said MacMillan, “But will I be able to do this job if we cant sell our fish to Europe? Im not sure.”
Fishing since he was 13, Lewis MacMillan is worried he wont have a job once the U.K. leaves the EU | Kait Bolongaro/POLITICO