Blog: ‘I was lied to by Boris Johnson’: Why much of UK fishing is still waiting for a Brexit boost – iNews

Fish merchant Ian Perkes won’t forget the day he met Boris Johnson.

It was 23 August 2019, and the MP, less than a month into his spell as prime minister, was on an unannounced visit to the south Devon fishing town of Brixham.

It was a typically rumbunctious performance from Johnson, extolling the virtues of Brexit and the “huge benefits” it was going to bring to the UK, not least the folk of this small but important UK fishing town.

Mr Perkes, who has been running his fish merchant business in the town since 1976, sat down with the PM just after Mr Johnson had shelled out £7.75 for some fish and chips on the picturesque harbour.

“Me and my son Joshua chatted to Boris for about ten minutes,” he recalls. “He promised us that we would need to expand our premises, employ more staff.

“He told us that when the Brexit rules came in January 2021, we would be so busy that we would take the fish off the French and they would be desperate to buy it from us. He said we could look forward to a very, very prosperous future.”

Roll forward three-and-a-half years and Mr Perkes’ revenue is 30 per cent down.

Ian Perkes says Boris Johnson lied to him about the benefits of Brexit (Photo: David Parsley)
Ian Perkes says Boris Johnson lied to him about the benefits of Brexit (Photo: David Parsley)

He had run his business profitably for 45 years before the post-Brexit fishing rules came into force in January 2021. Now he is having to contemplate giving up entirely on exports – which accounted for 85 per cent of his pre-Brexit sales – and axing up to a dozen of his 15 staff.

“I was brainwashed by Boris,” he says. “I voted for Brexit because we were told it would deliver for us. I was told that again in August 2019 by Boris when he came here.

“I got it wrong. There are no positives of Brexit for us. We will have to go down to just three or four staff if sales continue like they did last year. We’ve made a loss for the past three months, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better.

“We’ll be left with the 15 per cent of business we do in the UK because Boris lied to us, and Brexit ruined our export business.”

As a fishing merchant Mr Perkes business is now subject to a four-fold increase in fees for the export health certificates needed to transport fish to the continent, from £60 per shipment pre-Brexit to £240 now.

On top of that, there’s customs charges of £250 each time he sends fish through Calais and onwards to their final destination, whether that be in France, Spain or elsewhere in Europe.

“My costs have increased £2,000-£3,000 a week since Brexit,” says Mr Perkes. “And we also face increased competition from all over the world when it comes to buying the fish from the market.”

Brixham Banksy: Fishermen in the south west say they would ‘Let Them Eat Fish’ if they were not banned from catching some breeds that the rest of Europe’s trawlers can (Photo: David Parsley)
Brixham Banksy: Fishermen in the South West say they would ‘Let Them Eat Fish’ if they were not banned from catching some breeds that the rest of Europe’s trawlers can (Photo: David Parsley)

But that competition has been Brixham’s thriving fish market’s gain. The way it used to operate, local traders would arrive, take a good look at the fish, and bid for what they wanted to sell on to buyers both home and abroad.

“We used to touch the fish, find the best fish and bid for it,” says Mr Perkes. “But since Brexit, the auction is all online and we have to compete with merchants across Europe, even in Asia.”

There are other positive fishing stories in Brixham, with trawlers seeking the likes of Dover Sole or Ray – commonly known as Skate – selling at better prices. However, many other fishing businesses in the South West are, like Mr Perkes, still waiting for the benefits of Brexit to come through.

Across the River Tamar into Cornwall, local fishing fleets are feeling particularly hard done by over their ongoing ban on Spurdog fishing.

Better known to fish and chip fans as Rock Salmon, stocks of the small species of shark were believed to have fallen 90 per cent and the Cornish have been banned from catching them since 2010.

Newlyn fisherman Phil Mitchell has spent 12 years working with scientists proving the abundance of Spurdog, but the Government has failed to agree a deal with the EU to lift the ban on him, and many like him, catching it again.

“The French, Irish and Spanish can all work away and we’re still dumping loads of dead Spurdog,” says Mr Mitchell. “It’s just unbelievable.”

More on Fishing

The Government argues that the UK fishing industry will be £34m better off this year following a deal struck at the end of 2022 that brought the total value of fishing “opportunities” secured for the UK fleet to £750m since Brexit.

However, much of the increase in quotas apply to UK fisherman in the North of England, where there is a plentiful supply of cod and haddock.

Chris Ranford, chief executive of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation, argues the South West has been left behind by the Government

“They’re the sort of end of year headlines the Government likes to announce,” he says. “In reality, what we’ve found in the South West is we’ve actually had a £2m loss of fishing opportunities since where we were in 2021.”

Even a former Conservative environment minister is now criticising the Brexit deal he backed when in Mr Johnson’s cabinet.

George Eustice was in charge of the fishing industry when he was, until Mr Johnson’s downfall last year, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs.

He now says he believes the Brexit fishing deal should have been better negotiated by Lord Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator for exiting the European Union during the Brexit negotiations in 2019, and then chief negotiator of Task Force Europe until he resigned in December 2021.

“He [Lord Frost] was reluctant to make any concessions, and in the end it all happened in the final few days,” says Mr Eustice of the fishing deal with the EU. “It didn’t serve us well, leaving fisheries till the very end. I think it would have been better had it been addressed earlier in the negotiation.”

On the wall behind Ian Perkes’ processing units in the harbour is a Banksy mural, titled Let Them Eat Fish. But many fisherman in the South West might point out that they need to be allowed to catch the fish before people can eat them.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was contacted for comment.

Brixham Fish Market: A Brexit beneficiary

Brixham’s fish market enjoyed a record year of trading in 2022 (Photo: Joe Jackson/AFP/Getty Images)
Brixham’s fish market enjoyed a record year of trading in 2022 (Photo: Joe Jackson/AFP/Getty Images)

With a strong fishing tradition dating back to the 14th century, Brixham is credited with being one of the birthplaces of trawling.

In the 19th century, it was recorded that Brixham had 270 sail operated decked trawlers employing 1,600 seamen making it “the largest fishery in England”.

The beautiful south Devon town that rolls down to the coast on the western side of Torbay now has England’s largest fish market by value of fish sold. It is a rare post-Brexit success story in the fishing industry.

Back in 2017, the fish traded through the market hit a record £40m. That record lasted until the new post-Brexit fishing regimes came into force in 2021, when the market traded £43.6m of fish.

Many thought that record would stand for many years to come, but it did not even last 12 months.

In 2022, Brixham’s fishing fleet smashed the record when £60.8m of fish was traded in the port.

The success of the Brixham Fish Market is a silver lining for the UK fishing industry, which had struggled to find ways to cope with the impact of the UK’s departure from the European Union.

The market puts its success down to high fish prices as demand remained, and the success of the group’s online auctions and newly-built boats fishing from the port.

Boats from other ports in Cornwall, the South and South East of England, and south Wales have also been landing their fish in Brixham as prices on the auction were so favourable.

Barry Young, managing director of Brixham Trawler Agents, believes the market will have to expand due to demand. “The biggest issue we face is space,” said Mr Young. “With the additional volumes of fish, Brixham has outgrown the market that was built in 2011 when the values of fish landed were approaching £20m.”

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