Use your local chippy to save our fishing fleets: Barney White-Spunner
The fishing industry that I now serve will have an essential role to play as we re-examine our national food supply strategy and question the extent to which we have become reliant on imports to feed the nation.
Even before the word “coronavirus” entered our vocabulary, we were starting to see such a debate in a Brexit context. But that debate will become irrelevant if we do not move now to preserve what is left of the fishing industry here.
With export markets virtually evaporated and lockdowns severely impacting crew movements and logistics, hundreds of vessels are tied up in harbours along our coastline.
Of course, this situation has its parallels in many of our land-based firms, but the sad truth is that our fishing industry is more vulnerable than most, and it is not receiving government support in the same way.
While income streams have dried up completely, running costs have not, with insurance and maintenance charges, harbour fees and other industry-specific burdens all taking a heavy toll.
Assistance from the UK government’s Small Business Grant Fund is based on rateable value. Neither this nor Business Rates Relief will be of help to many fishermen.
So while seafront businesses in Scarborough, Whitby or Bridlington will deservedly be helped to ride out the storm, the fishermen who work from those harbours will, as things stand, not benefit in the same way.
Further afield, the European Commission has been swift to act, as have some of the devolved nations, offering legislative and financial support to their fishermen.
The Scottish government has promised funds to support its seafood processors and owners of smaller vessels, and in Northern Ireland the legislature is to pay monthly grants to vessel owners.
But English fishermen are in limbo, unable to work but also unsure as to what other action they can take as they desperately seek to preserve their livelihoods. So I urge the Treasury to act quickly and decisively and launch through Defra an equitable, nationwide scheme that would match or go beyond those of the devolved administrations.
UK Fisheries, whose Advisory Board I chair, is fortunate in that we have thus far been able to continue fishing for cod and haddock in the sustainable distant waters in and around the Barents Sea.
The loyal and dedicated crew of our freezer vessel Kirkella were recently to have enjoyed some shore leave, but since the pandemic has made crew changes impossible they have agreed to another back-to-back trip that could keep them away from their families for a total of three months – all in order that we should continue to bring home delicious white fish for our national dish.
But these efforts, too, might be in vain if we no longer have fish and chip shops operating on our high streets. Sadly we have seen hundreds close their doors – some perhaps permanently – as local footfall has all but ceased. Some entrepreneurial chippies are offering a delivery or a phone-and-collect service, but this accounts for only a fraction of their normal income.
I would urge every reader of The Yorkshire Post to use their local chippy as much as it is safe to do so. Most of those that are open allow only one customer in at a time, helping everyone comply with essential social-distancing guidelines.
Fish and chips was never rationed during the Second World War, and once again British-caught fish can help us through a time of crisis. But for it to do this, we must protect our industry now and in the future.
Recently, the Norwegian government recognised the “critical function” to society of fisheries, and I believe Defra Secretary George Eustice should make a similar declaration.
We need to send a clear message to coastal communities that we recognise their importance to our economy, our food supply and to the nation as a whole. If we can do so, we will have the thanks of generations to come, who will remember the 2020 pandemic as a new beginning for our industry. Sir Barney White-Spunner is the Advisory Board chairman of UK Fisheries.
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