Conservative MPs who hyped the potential benefits of Brexit for the fishing industry have been accused of quietly abandoning any mention of the issue after promised gains failed to materialise.
The National Federation of Fisherman’s Organisations (NFFO) said on Wednesday that even the “most vociferous supporters” in the Tory parliamentary party had gone “very quiet” since the signing of Boris Johnson’s deal.
It comes after fishing representative bodies accused the prime minister of a “betrayal” and for weaving a “tale of woe, very far away from the sea of opportunity that some spoke about”.
“Those Conservative MPs that were our most vociferous supporters were very quiet, about the implications of the TCA [trade and cooperation agreement]. That’s the world that we’re having to adjust to,” said Barrie Deas, chief executive of the NFFO in a briefing with journalists on Wednesday.
“The European Research Group, for example quite often referred to fishing as a poster child [for Brexit] but I don’t think any of them came out and said this is a bad deal for fishing. Their eye was on the main prize, which of course was the trade agreement.”
Mr Deas reiterated the widely held industry position the agreement signed with the EU had been a “sell-out”, keeping the situation more or less unchanged until at least 2026. And he said Brussels was “quietly confident” that it could use future negotiations to prolong the status quo indefinitely.
“It’s really quite hard to convey how sudden the industry’s fall from grace was. In December last year we were the kind of the poster child for Brexit, and we were very much looking forward to a future as an independent coastal state, with very, very solid assurances given by the Prime Minister, Lord Frost, and senior members of the of the cabinet over control over who fishes in UK waters and escape from the Common Fisheries Policy – and quota shares that reflected our new status as an independent coastal state,” he said.
“And then, from Christmas Eve, really, the government in an eerie echo of Ted Heath’s betrayal – as it’s seen in the industry – in 1973 where fishing was sacrificed, despite all the assurances and promises. That deal was made in order to secure the broader advantages that would be attached to a trade deal with the EU.”
The chief executive said fishermen had been dealt a triple blow by Brexit, the expansion of offshore wind turbines, and what he referred to as a government “in thrall” to the “conservation lobby”. He argued that fishing politics would be “toxic” for years to come.
And Mr Deas argued that the weak deal struck with the EU had been interpreted by other countries as a sign that the UK would not stand up for fishermen – an approach they were increasingly taking advantage of.
“The turbulence that has been created has extended to our relations with Norway,” he said, describing the country’s policy as a “quota grab”.
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“Seeing that the UK gave into the EU, Norway is playing quite a dangerous game of hardball on Mackerel – at some cost, it has to be said, to their reputation.”
Boris Johnson almost completely folded on fishing during Brexit talks, ditching many UK red lines that had been in place since the start of talks in order to avoid a no-deal.
Quota shares were only moderately adjusted to favour UK vessels, and no coastal exclusion zone was established, despite promises to the industry.
The limited nature of the trade agreement between the UK and EU compared to membership of the single market and customs union has also had a devastating impact on some British fish exporters, especially those of shellfish.