OPINION: Herring and chips twice? The fishy Brexit issue we’re facing for cod’s sake

PUBLISHED: 11:35 19 November 2020 | UPDATED: 11:35 19 November 2020

Britain's traditional cod or haddock and chips could have a different look to it in 2021 if the UK doesn't have access to European fish markets, says Andy Newman. Picture: Getty Images

Britain's traditional cod or haddock and chips could have a different look to it in 2021 if the UK doesn't have access to European fish markets, says Andy Newman. Picture: Getty Images


Food writer Andy Newman is wary of a big issue on the horizon for fish and chip lovers

When you write a newspaper column, you have two choices as to how you approach the task. The first is to play it safe, examine all points of view, but don’t actually express an opinion. The second is to say what you actually think, and accept that a proportion of your readers are going to choke on their morning coffee in rage at what you have written.

I was taught early on in my career that the second approach is best; what, after all, is the point of writing an opinion piece if you are not going to have a point of view? Fence-sitting is bland and boring. Stoking debate does at least get the issues out into the open.

Of course, out into the open nowadays mostly means online. Social media and the bottom half of the internet are full of anonymous keyboard warriors and out-and-out trolls, who are not shy in telling people like me that I am wrong.

You might wonder why anyone would put themselves up as a target for such spleen, but the truth is that, aside from when it becomes unpleasantly abusive, I enjoy it. It does everybody good to be reminded that their opinion is only one point of view, and to have their preconceptions questioned. Just occasionally that rarest of things, a well-argued point in the comments section, will change my mind. Not often, though.

This column is loosely themed around food and drink. During the five or so years that my cheery photo has adorned this page, I have been the target of some tsunamis of online outrage, mostly when I dare to suggest that the British way is not always the best way. Anything to do with Brexit tends to get the hackles rising, but no column has ever generated quite so much fury as when I suggested that fish and chips was over-rated. I may have written that it is the “most boring meal on the planet”.

So I’m donning my tin hat today, because what I have to say concerns both Brexit and Britain’s favourite grease-laden fishy meal. Well, you have to make sure the letters editor has something to do.

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Brexit is the news story that was set to dominate the front pages this year until coronavirus came along. Understandably we have all been distracted by an epidemic which has already killed more than 50,000 of us to the extent that we find ourselves just 41 days away from our post-EU future, still with no idea what it is going to look like.

In the frantic last-minute trade talks currently happening, one of the key issues is fisheries. And I have bad news for those of a British-is-best, I-like-my-fish-dinner-battered-and-greasy, we-don’t-need-Johnny-Foreigner persuasion: you are going to have to find something else to eat with your chips.

It’s common for Brexiteers to claim that the UK is self-sufficient in fish, being a nation surrounded by water which is quite literally swimming with the blighters. But that is rather simplistic; whilst we do indeed catch enough fish in our waters to satisfy domestic demand, the truth is that the type of fish we catch is not what we want to eat.

Mackerel and herring are the two fish we catch most of, between them accounting for almost a third of UK trawlers’ returns. Sadly, Brits have little appetite for these species, and we export 81% of that mackerel and a whopping 93% of the herring – almost all of it to the EU and Norway (part of the single market we have decided to leave).

By contrast, cod accounts for just five per cent of the UK catch, and we rely on imports for 83% of our cod suppers – and 58% of the haddock we eat.

Our decision to leave the EU currently means that UK boats will have exclusive access to UK waters – but we won’t have access to the European markets who actually want to buy what we catch. And we are likely to face punitive tariffs and restrictive quotas when it comes to importing the cod and haddock that those fish and chip-loving keyboard warriors love so much.

What all this means is that we are taking back control of our right to land tonnes of fish we don’t want to eat and that we can no longer sell; and cutting off our access to the fish we do want to eat, but that we can’t get enough of in UK waters.

Doubtless the green ink brigade at the bottom of the internet will be able to concoct some reason why this is beneficial to the UK; I’ll look forward to reading their suggestions. But it’s telling that not a single politician, fisheries expert, economist or international trade guru – in other words the people who should know what they are talking about – has yet been able to explain why all this is a good idea.

If you like cod and chips, enjoy the next 45 days. After which you had better develop a taste for herring.

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