YORKSHIRE has a special relationship with fishing. From the small inshore boats of Bridlington and Whitby to Kirkella, UK Fisheries’ state-of the art distant-waters trawler based in Hull, fishing is part of the county’s DNA.
As chairman of UK Fisheries, a proudly British company headquartered in Hessle, I’m struck by the special blend of heritage and innovation in Yorkshire’s fishing communities every time I come here. So it surprises me that while many local MPs are engaging fully with our efforts to guarantee the future of distant-waters fishing in the county – and with it the wellbeing of the hundreds of families who rely on fishing for their livelihood – others are not as vocal as they might be.
The stakes are high.
The UK government has not yet struck agreements with our non-EU trading partners guaranteeing the right of access for British vessels to the bountiful waters off the coasts of Norway, Greenland, Iceland and the Faeroes in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Without such deals, vessels such as Kirkella will no longer be able to fish in these distant waters, and a centuries-old part of the UK fishing industry will come to an end. It’s as simple, and as tragic, as that – and this fate could be only a matter of weeks away.
While the Department for International Trade (DIT) has drafted ‘continuity’ agreements with some of our non-EU partners in the event of no-deal, these relate only to trade and do not, for example, guarantee access for UK vessels to Norwegian waters.
In fact, as far as the wider fisheries industry is concerned, they do no more than guarantee Norway the right to continue selling its fish products to the valuable UK market, while offering absolutely nothing to UK fishermen in return. This is inexplicable.
British vessels have been fishing distant waters for centuries, in recent times under mutually-beneficial agreements with our partners around the North Sea.
But now, it seems, we are prepared to give away access to British markets, and with it, our strongest card in negotiations with these non-EU countries.
Not only does this defy common sense, it denies the UK the chance to strike exactly the kind of flexible and innovative trade deal that was supposed to be the holy grail of leaving the European Union.
We have been arguing our case hard in Whitehall, and to be clear, this is not an argument for remaining in the Common Fisheries Policy, and neither are we talking about any future arrangement with the EU.
I think most fishermen would agree that leaving the CFP could, if managed properly, be a boon to the entire UK industry. All we want is for DIT –and also the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – to be fighting our corner in a post-Brexit world.
However, there is no sign in any of our dealings with government ministers or officials that they are prepared to depart from the insistence that agreements over market access and fishing grounds be kept separate – for reasons no-one has convincingly explained.
Some politicians have showed little willingness to engage in the debate at all – Trade Secretary Dr Liam Fox has, for example, cancelled two meetings with us at short notice.
It is vital for Yorkshire’s fishing heritage that all our local MPs are making their voices heard over the current cacophony of Westminster and insisting that our trade negotiators see sense.
We must not give away this once proud industry for vague promises or the hope that our partners will take pity.
If you care as much as we do about the future of Kirkella and the hundreds of people in the county whose livelihoods depend on her, then I urge you to contact your local MP and ask him or her to redouble their efforts to help.
Fishing deserves a bright future in the UK, but we can only achieve this if we strike the right deals for a post-Brexit world.
Sir Barney White-Spunner is the chairman of UK Fisheries.