AFP – Just before dawn, the Good Fellowship trawler casts its nets deep into the North Sea, fishing for prawns off England’s northeast coast.
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Britain finally departs the European Union on Friday but remains bound by the bloc’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) until the end of a transition period on Dec 31.
The Good Fellowship’s captain, David Shiel, is cautiously hopeful that Brexit can help reverse decades of decline in the UK’s once-booming fishing industry that has been blamed partly on EU membership allowing foreign vessels to fish in British waters. The small vessel embarks upon a day-long trip from the port town of North Shields – situated at the mouth of the River Tyne – to fish off the coast of England’s northeastern region, almost all of which voted for Brexit.
The three-man crew shoots heavy nets into the waters 13 kilometres out to sea. And as the nets scoop up prawns largely destined for dining tables and restaurants in Italy, France and Spain, Shiel says the time has come for the UK to take back control for its own fishing fleet. “Our own fleet surely has to come first,” he says, after steering his ship out of North Shields – the historic Fish Quay that dates back to the 13th century. It is home to 33 vessels and around 350 fishermen.
While fishing accounts for less than 0.1 percent of UK economic output, it played a key role in the 2016 referendum in favour of exiting the EU.
The CFP permits EU vessels equal access to the fishing grounds of other member states, if they comply with quotas.
Shiel, 52, says this lets rival EU fishermen catch an unfair amount of fish from UK waters.
Following Brexit, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government is planning legislation to exclude foreign vessels. However, a Brussels-based EU diplomat said that finding an accord on fishing access to British waters was a prerequisite for striking an overall deal on Britain’s new trade relationship with the bloc.
EU boats take roughly six times more fish from UK waters than British boats do from EU waters. At the same time, 90 percent of the fish caught off North Shields by British boats are prawns for export, with around two-thirds going to France, Spain and Italy, according to Andy Dixon, who manages Caley Fisheries’ North Shields division. Britain tends to import most of the fish it eats.
Dixon says he hopes Johnson can be trusted not to betray UK fishermen. Barrie Deas, head of the UK body the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said British fishermen had felt “betrayed” by the granting of equal EU access in 1973. “That was seen as a betrayal because the fishing industry was sacrificed for other national political and economic objectives,” said Deas.