Will Brexit bring boost to King’s Lynn, Yarmouth and Lowestoft - or will fishing industry be sold down the river?
While the sun shone down on the shrimp boats, there could be rough seas ahead for King’s Lynn’s fishing fleet and what few vessels still manage to steer their way through the murky waters of EU fisheries policy.
As fishermen met politicians to discuss lobbying for a better deal post Brexit, some Lynn boats were fuelling up to sail down to the English Channel to fish, because they have no quota to catch from their home port.
Others have already steamed through an estuary full of shellfish on their way to fish for scallops off Yorkshire, because they have no quota in The Wash.
The same issues affect every fishing port around our coast, from Wells Quay and Sheringham, to Yarmouth and Lowestoft.
“When I started out, as a 15-year-old boy with a bit of bum fluff, there were 146 trawlers, with 10 men on each,” said Lowestoft fisherman Paul Lines. “That was 1974. There’s 10 now.”
Instead of local boats, fishermen complain many quota owners hail from as far afield as Holland, France and Spain. Some are even registered to so-called ghost ships or owners who then sub-let them, reeling in the profits from the safety of dry land.
And then there’s capping. A limit placed on how many fish of a particular species a boat can catch.
“Some of the boats here have already left for Scarborough because they’ve got no quotas,” said Lynn fisherman Matthew Smith. “Some of the boats have been capped so much they can’t land fish. We have to be nomadic or we wouldn’t be in business.”
When Brexit first came on the horizon, talk on the quays at Lynn and elsewhere was of reclaiming the seas, getting our fish back, getting our hands back on the tiller an industry worth an estimated £6bn.
“We want our government to work on a responsible manner, so British fishermen benefit from British fish,” said Mr Lines. “We want the water back and we want our fish back.”
But some now smell a red herring. They fear Theresa May might sell them down the river as a bargaining chip, to retain access to the single market post-Brexit.
June Mummery, fish agent at Lowestoft’s fish market, said: “Let’s hope Theresa May sees the light and isn’t influenced by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. She has to get on the shop floor and listen to the real people.
“I don’t want her giving away our fishing industry like they did 40 years ago. We want everything back, we want the 200-mile limit and the fish, we want it all back.”
After a briefing on the quayside, with a backdrop of shrimpers hoisting their nets to dry in the breeze, fishermen were joining UKIP MEPs including Mike Hookem, the party’s appropriately-named fisheries spokesman, to discuss lobbying for their livelihoods. Views were somewhat polarised beforehand amid senior members of the party which laid the groundbait for Brexit.
“I’m very upbeat about Brexit, I think it’s going to give the industry back to us that we lost 40 years ago that was stolen by the Tory government,” said Mr Hookem, MEP for the Humber region.
“It will bring investment into ports like this, it will bring a multi-billion pound industry.
“We believe for every fisherman there are 10 jobs ashore. We want a red line, it’s our waters, our fish, we want them back.”
Jonathan Childs, county councillor for East Flegg, said: “We did have a fishing fleet in Great Yarmouth. How many people I grew up with went to sea, went to work on the boats and lost their jobs.
“It’s a tragedy for seaside industries, we need to have a vibrant fishing industry.”
Marine engineers, netmakers, fishmongers and lorry drivers all depend on Yarmouth, Lynn and all ports between to put bread on their table.
East Anglian MEP Stuart Agnew had a different view of their survival prospects once Mrs May declares full steam ahead for Brexit.
“They may be sacrificial lambs, it’s quite conceivable that in those negotiations we will be told if we stay in the Common Fisheries Policy that will be our way into the single market,” he said. “There’s something very dirty going on here.”
Waveney MP Peter Aldous is secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on fishing.
“Based on what has happened in the past, I can understand those concerns and have had those concerns put to me,” he said. “I have in turn passed those concerns on to government.
“The concerns of the fishing industry are understood in Westminster and in Whitehall and I think they are being factored into the whole process.”
Mr Aldous said the next few years could provide an opportunity to improve the lot of the fishing industry.
“There needs to be an opportunity to have greater control over our waters and there also is a need for new fishing opportunities to be made available to British fishermen,” he said.
“Finally, there needs to be a management system that preserves the fish and gives local fishermen the chance to get a sensible income.
“These are the challenges that face us.”
A government spokesman said: “We recognise the importance of our fishing industry and leaving the EU is a real opportunity to review fisheries management in the UK.
“We will be working hard to secure the best possible deal for all our fishermen, one which ensures fair access to quota, sustainable stocks and a healthy marine environment.”