British fishermen battle codfathers, quotas – and Brexit delay

More than three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, the fishermen of Ilfracombe are thoroughly fed up. They were promised a greater share of fishing quotas, that Britain would “take back control” of its waters and become an independent coastal state. But theyve seen little of the change they voted for. FRANCE 24 reports.


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On a crisp October afternoon in a neglected corner of southwest England, the catch of the day was being hauled ashore from the Wharton brothers boat. Lobster pots sat stacked around the harbour. Families strolled in the sunshine and seagulls screamed overhead.

More than three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, the fishermen of Ilfracombe were thoroughly fed up.

“Its a bloody disgrace,” said Scott Wharton, a gregarious 50-year-old who, along with his brother Paul, owns the two lobster-coloured trawlers slung up at the wharf.

Wharton, like the majority of British fishermen, voted to leave the EU. They were promised that smaller operators would have a greater share of fishing quotas, that Britain would “take back control” of its waters and become an independent coastal state. But in the three-and-a-half years since the referendum on Britains EU membership, theyve seen little of the change they voted for.

Lobsters pots stacked around the harbour in Ilfracombe Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

Although the British fishing trade is booming, small-scale fishermen continue to struggle. The 20 to 30 trawlers that plied their trade from Ilfracombes harbour in the 1980s have dwindled to just two trawlers and three smaller potting boats today. Now the Wharton brothers are the last family-run trawling company on the West Coast.

“The quota balance is horrendous,” said Wharton as he wandered along a harbour humming with people and alive with the smell of freshly caught fish. A crate of dogfish – to be used as bait – was carried ashore and a child stopped to gape at a mass of silver-grey smooth hounds bound for London. Vans came by to pick up the last of the seasons lobsters and a steady trickle of buyers dropped in at the Whartons fish shop for cockles and whelks, dressed crab and prawns.

“Were not saying to the French and the Belgians that they cant come here. Were European as much as theyre European. But dont you think its a bit unfair that the French and the Belgians get 95% of the quota off here?” asked the fisherman, who voted to leave the EU largely because of “the unfairness of the quota system” and “the European bloody CFP (Common Fisheries Policy)”.


Ever since the UK joined the common market in the 1970s British fishermen have been clamouring for more of the quota. Leave campaigners such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson and prominent Conservative politician Michael Gove made much of the controversial CFP when they led their campaign to leave the EU. But the very British politicians who promised smaller operators lavish amounts of new quota have so far failed to resolve the quota inequality in the UK. As Wharton pointed out, the majority of British fishing quota – the allocation of which is a national decision – is owned by just a handful of fat-cat fishermen.

Last year a Greenpeace report revealed that more than two-thirds of the UKs fishing quota is controlled by just 25 businesses – who they dubbed “codfathers” – and that 50% of the British fishing quota was owned by foreign interests. One of the largest quota-holders was named as a flagship in the 2016 “Brexit flotilla” that sailed up the Thames with then-UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Gove, who served as the UKs environment secretary until recently, vowed in July 2018 that the UK was “taking back control” of British waters. But buried in a white paper on the new governments fisheries policy was a line that said, “We do not intend to change the method for allocating existing quota”. Only new quota – which the government promises to obtain after Brexit – will be allocated more fairly.

Anyone seeking to snap up extra British quota has to buy it at inflated prices, further adding to the consolidation of the UK fishing market. Smaller operators like the Whartons, whove been working at sea since they were 16, end up with a very small slice of the pie. “Its a rich mans game,” said Gavin Vaughan, a 41-year-old Welshman who works on the Wharton brothers boat. “Whoevers got the biggest cheque book wins,” he added. Vaughan, who works part-time as a scaffolder to pay the bills, would like to see the quota model completely stripped down and restructured. “Its corrupt, it doesnt work at all,” he said.

Freshly caught dogfish -- to be used as bait for catching whelks -- in the harbour at Ilfracombe
Freshly caught dogfish — to be used as bait for catching whelks — in the harbour at Ilfracombe Charlotte Wilkins, FRANCE 24

Fishermen looking to break into the industry are crippled by the cost of quotas, vessels and licences, explained Ben Bengey, a blond, baby-faced 23-year-old, who was recently named Young Fisherman of the Year. Bengey, who cant afford to buy quota, charters boats in the summer and fishes for whelks in winter – since whelks, like all shellfish, are currently quota-free. The freshly caught whelks are processed first at Combe Fisheries in Barnstaple, then sent on to the Far East: China, Japan, and Korea. “They eat whelks like we eat crisps,” said Bengey with a grin. But species such as ray, plaice, Dover sole, sea bass, and cod – the French have 80% of the cod quota in the Channel – are subject to stringent rules on catching.

'Asleep at the wheel'

British “civil servants have been asleep at the wheel”, said Jeremy Percy, director of the New Under Ten Fishermens Association, which campaigns on behalf of small-scale fleets. “They've allowed quota to become just another commodity that can be bought and sold, which has allowed far sharper and more far-seeing, often foreign corporations to buy up UK quota and the vessels and licences.”

The North Devon Fishermens Association continues to press the Department of the Environment for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for greater quota equality and for smaller operators to have a larger slice of the pie, said their president Tony Balls in a phone call to FRANCE 24. However, Balls also remained hopeful that once Britain left the EU, they would be able to snap up more of the European quota.

Others were less optimistic about how easy it would be to obtain better fishing rights during the Brexit negotiations. “Where someones getting more then someones getting less,” said Percy. “France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Ireland are sure as hell not going to take that lying down.” He referred to a clause of UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) that overrides the CFP, and that states that whoever as a nation has habitually fished in waters of another nation has the right to carry on fishing there. “So Im absolutely certain that those nations will continue to fish here and that it will all endRead More – Source

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