“Economic peanuts, political dynamite,” that is how fishing rights were described by the late Sir Con O’Neill, the UK chief negotiator, in his account of entry talks in 1972.
The industry, which makes up around 0.1 per cent of the UK economy, is once again on the agenda as modern day negotiators seek to reverse the decisions made almost 50 years ago.
The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations called the negotiations a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to climb the ladder of successful seafood nations and reap the greatest benefit from our sovereign natural resources”, although fierce opposition from France and Ireland could yet put pay to that.
Emmanuel Macron, who is under pressure from his own fishermen who fear losing access to vital waters, said last month that “under any circumstance, our fishermen should not be sacrificed for Brexit,” while Irish premier Micheal Martin also noted that it is “very important” that their coastal communities are protected through a “sensible and fair fisheries deal.”
Elephant in the room
Yet on the British side, no one seems to be talking about the elephant in the room, which is immigration rules covering foreign citizens in the UK’s fleet.
According to a 2017 Seafish survey on 313 UK fishing vessels and 914 jobs, non-UK workers accounted for 39 per cent of all deckhands in the fishing fleet.
The poll, which represents seven per cent of active vessels and seven per cent of jobs in the UK fishing fleet, correlated with research published by Marine Scotland in previous years and a survey carried out by the industry showing that both EEA and non-EEA crew serve in significant numbers on fishing vessels, particularly on prawn trawlers.
Points based system
But under the Conservative Party’s celebrating points based immigration system, these workers would not be deemed skilled enough to support a visa application to work in the UK.
Despite working in dangerous conditions with complex machinery, serving as crew on a fishing vessel does not qualify as a sought after skill, despite recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee to the contrary.
Around 40% of the crew of the British fishing fleet are foreign nationals. Once Brexit bites on 1 Jan 21, there’s no visa available for future crew. Looks like pretty bad news for the fishing industry (as for other sectors dependent on hard jobs like this) https://t.co/FX5ShRor74— Colin Yeo has a book out (@ColinYeo1) November 16, 2020
Speaking to The Press and Journal, Orkney-based skipper Ronnie Norquoy, who met the prime minister on board his vessel in Stromness in July, said despite his best efforts to employ local labour, “the reality within the fishing industry today is we cannot survive without foreign crew”.
Of course, workers who already reside in the UK will have had the option to apply for settled status and seasonal work opportunities will offer short-term relief in some instances, but the decision not to reclassify deckhands as skilled workers leaves the UK’s fishing fleets — particularly those which operate inside territorial waters — with limited routes for hiring foreign crew members in the future.
It begs the question, what use are fishing rights without the availability of crew to fish them?