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Home / Sporting Events / Fishing / Brexit and Welsh waters: A story of hope, fear and uncertainty

Brexit and Welsh waters: A story of hope, fear and uncertainty

Len Walters is in absolutely no doubt.

“Everyone’s got an opinion on whether they wanted to leave or remain,” he says.

“I don’t want to argue with anybody, people have different views about whether we should be in or out. But, for fishermen, it’s out.”

Mr Walters lives in St Dogmaels, a village on the Teifi estuary right on the border of Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion. He has been fishing for 35 years. It’s what he knows, what he loves and what feeds his family. One of those family members, his son Aaron, has followed in his father’s footsteps and now spends hours, sometimes days, on the water.

Mr Walters voted to leave the European Union in 2016. Pembrokeshire voted decisively to leave (though neighbouring Ceredigion voted almost as decisively to remain). His only regret is that Brexit hasn’t yet been finalised and that we are still treading water through a period of uncertainty.


Fishing has become a totemic subject within the Brexit debate (think Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s fish-dumping protests on the Thames). For backers of Brexit, the industry symbolises how British workers are losing out to those on the continent.

But it’s a complex situation and it’s far from certain that Brexit will lead to a Welsh fishing renaissance.

Recent reports revealed that major Spanish operators have bought control of 88% of Wales’ fishing quota. Fishermen across the UK have for years sold their allocations to foreign-owned companies. Buying back these rights would require massive investment.

Then there’s the issue of the make-up of the Welsh fishing fleet.

A report carried out by the Wales Centre for Public Policy says the fleet is “particularly small-scale” and therefore would not benefit from exclusive access to an extended fishing area as they primarily fish for species that are not managed through quota limits.

Ninety per cent of the Welsh fishing fleet is made up of small vessels (under 10 metres). Together they are allocated less than 1% of the total UK fishing quota and around 0.02% of the EU fishing quota overall.

A “fairer rebalancing of fishing quota is a stated priority of fisheries stakeholders both in Wales and across the UK”, the report says, with reference to EU and other countries fishing in Welsh and UK waters.

“Stakeholders in Wales are interested in how to grow and add value to the fishing industry in Wales, however, what a fairer redistribution of quota means in practice has yet to be established,” it says.

There are also concerns about any potential trade barriers resulting from Brexit. Most of the seafood produced by Welsh boats is exported to EU countries or through EU trade agreements and harder borders could affect that operation.

Brexit “has the potential to significantly change the context of fisheries management in the UK”, the report says. But it also says there are “large divisions within the industry”.

The report summarises: “Analysis of fleet economic performance under six Brexit scenarios reveals that while the Welsh fishing fleet as a whole could gain, there are large divisions in the industry, with most vessels, fishers and ports likely to be ‘net losers’ from Brexit.”

A fisherman throws petrol on to a fishing boat that was set alight as fishermen took part in a nationwide protest against the Brexit transition deal in April in Whitstable. The group Fishing For Leave organised protests with fishermen in ports around the UK to make their opposition known to the Brexit transition deal and Common Fisheries Policy
(Image: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

There’s no doubting the depth of frustration, with even a Welsh Government minister saying Wales is “effectively voiceless” on some issues.

Jerry Percy, the Haverfordwest-based chairman of the Coastal Producer Organisation, said: “You end up with this situation where UK fishermen can stand on the harbour wall with no quota to go to sea with, watching very large foreign ships hoovering up our fish with our quota.”

He describes the status quo as a “mess of epic proportions” and pins the blame on the UK Government, saying: “Defra, basically through incompetence and a lack of real focus, has allowed this market to develop.”

Mr Walters says the fishing industry has been “going downhill” ever since the UK joined the EU.

“It’s a difficult industry,” said Mr Walters. “It’s all weather permitting. During one winter, we didn’t move for three months. That makes things very difficult for us.

“We have the best scallop grounds in Europe around here but thanks to EU regulations they’re closed off to us. Thanks to EU regulations, a lot of Welsh boats have been forced to move to England or Scotland.”

Mr Walters catches mostly shellfish on two boats that are 10 metres in length, meaning that EU quotas do not apply, but, he explains, this did not stop him from voting to leave when he went to the polls in June 2016 – a decision, he says, that was made by “99% of fishermen across the UK”.

“You get all these MPs and AMs saying that we need the continental market because 90% of our catch goes to Europe,” says Mr Walters.

“But we’ve spoken to the merchants on the other side and they will still want to do business with us. However, we’ll be in a better position and we’ll be able to trade with anyone.

“For years now, we’ve had to sell to the European market; they dictate what we can and what we can’t trade. After Brexit, we will be free to trade with who we want.”

He also says that the very idea of Brexit seems to have had an impact on his income.

“The last two winters, since the vote to leave the EU, we have already seen a huge difference,” he says.

“Prices for crab and lobster have doubled or even trebled. Is that a coincidence? It’s because they realise that they are going to have to start competing for our produce.”

Since the 1970s, fishermen have had to abide by the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy, which sets out certain rules in a bid to manage the conservation of fish stocks.

The aim of the policy, according to the European Commission, is to “ensure that fishing and aquaculture are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable and that they provide a source of healthy food for EU citizens”.

The UK Government intends to draw up its very own Fisheries Bill which, according to Michael Gove, the UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will give British fishermen the opportunity to “take back control of our fishing policy”.

The Government has triggered its withdrawal from the London Fisheries Convention, an arrangement signed prior to the UK’s joining of the EU. This sits alongside the aforementioned Common Fisheries Policy, but, crucially, would still have been in place post-Brexit, leaving British fishermen still bound by its rules.

The thinking now, by withdrawing from the convention, is that a post-Brexit existence will result in more control and access. Or, as Mr Gove put it: “It means for the first time in more than 50 years we will be able to decide who can access our waters.”

But the Welsh Government is also looking to implement its own policy, adding to the complexity of the issue.

Nigel Farage and Fishing for Leave supporters throw fish overboard into the River Thames from a fishing boat outside the Houses of Parliament in March after British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the EU would maintain control of fisheries policy until the end of 2020
(Image: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Jim Evans, the chair of the Welsh Fishermen’s Association, says there are potential pros and cons to go with the plethora of ifs, buts and maybes of Brexit but, crucially, he says that fishermen in Wales will need to “clearly understand” what the arrangements will be post-Brexit.

“In Wales, 90% of the landed catch is shellfish, 90% of which is exported to European markets,” he says. “The majority of the shellfish is transported live in Vivier lorries.

“It is therefore critical to maintain the shortest possible supply chains based on frictionless borders – exporters of perishable goods would be particularly vulnerable to non-tariff barrier, eg, customs check, certification inspections, delays etc.

“In the short term, the transitional arrangements would provide some comfort to catchers and exporters of shellfish product to the EU markets, however the transition must have an established end date. In the meantime we need to clearly understand what a bespoke customs arrangement will look like to avoid pushing the potential for a ‘cliff edge’ to December 2020.

“Conversely the significant opportunities to reinvigorate fishing communities and ports in Wales cannot be realised until the transition period ends [the UK will remain part of the common fisheries system until at least 2021], the Common Fisheries Policy no longer applies and the UK will assume the legal status of an Independent Coastal State under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

Frustrated by the impact the European Union has had on the livelihood of fishermen in Wales, Len Walters is in no doubt they will be better off post-Brexit
(Image: Adrian White)

He says that “the repatriation of quota species to Wales will present a once-in-a-generation opportunity that will generate much-needed investment in the fleet, ports, infrastructure, processing facilities and logistics that maximise the economic benefits to Welsh ports, fishing communities and future generations”.

And he adds: “Welsh fishing and maritime heritage is part of the fabric and identity of coastal communities and our place in the world. It is therefore our duty to ensure the best possible outcome for fishermen and women in Wales.”

Dr Thomas Appleby, an expert in fishing rights at the University of the West of England, cautions how expensive it would be to get back those allocations bought by European fishing firms.

He said: “In order to take the quota back from the Spanish companies we would have to acquire it back at full market value. You’re talking in the order of hundreds of millions of pounds to do that.”

A move to take back quotas would also prove highly controversial. Dr Appleby says: “Under European law, European companies can base themselves in the UK and buy British fishing vessels in the same way that Tesco can go and set up supermarkets in France.

“Essentially, what’s happened is European businesses have come over here and they have quite legally acquired fishing vessels and fishing vessel licences and through those they’ve been able to acquire UK quota.”

He also cautions against piling blame on the EU for the situation, saying: “A heck of a lot of the rhetoric around this is starting in the wrong place. [The] allocation of fishing rights to the British fleet is a British competence, not a European competence.

“So a lot of the blame that sits around here is thrown at the EU and isn’t actually their responsibility. I’m not being an apologist for the European Union but it infuriates me as a lawyer when I see things and I think, ‘You’re just blaming the wrong person’.”


Fishing only accounts for a tiny share of the UK’s GDP – less than 0.5% in 2014 – but the question of how to revive the industry, and the debate about the EU’s role in its decline, stirs strong passions.

Welsh Ukip MEP Nathan Gill, who lives on Anglesey, said: “It’s the perfect example of how the EU has destroyed British institutions and something that was good. The fishing industry in Britain was one of our major industries [in 1938, there were nearly 50,000 fishermen in the UK. But by 2016 there were fewer than 12,000, with just 753 in Wales].

“We allowed the EU to pull one over on us when we joined. What they’ve managed to do is raid all of our fish stocks and deplete our fishing industry.”

This conviction that Britain’s fishing communities have had a raw deal from the EU runs strong.

Mr Percy, of the Coastal Producer Organisation, put it bluntly: “If you talk to fishermen around the coast, they will tell you that when we went into the common market we got screwed – and that’s factually correct because we know that Edward Heath just gave away the fishing industry, basically. And the general view is we got screwed going in and we’re likely to get screwed coming out.”

There isn’t just anger about the past. There is also anxiety about the future. And exports of live shellfish in the face of lengthy customs checks are also a key concern for Mr Percy, who thinks staying in “some form of customs union” is necessary.

He said: “At the moment we’ve got effectively seamless exporting. Nobody looks at anything. You just drive on the ferry [or] along the tunnel, and then you drive out the other end and away you go.”

Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, acknowledges that the Welsh fishing fleet had been “disadvantaged by the way quotas have become commercialised”.

She said: “The transition deal agreed between the EU and UK Government maintains access to European markets on current terms until the end of 2020. As around 90% of Welsh fish and shellfish is exported to Europe, I welcome a deal which would maintain our access to European markets.

“However, I know the Welsh industry will be very disappointed with a deal which binds us into all of the Common Fisheries Policy on those terms. The deal reached appears to leave Wales effectively voiceless regarding the management of fisheries in our waters during the transition phase and we will be prevented from negotiating with our European partners the share of fish in our waters for the final year of the agreement.

“[We] want to see the Welsh fishing industry receive its fair share of fishing opportunities in the future. Historically Wales has not received a fair share. Leaving the EU allows us to break from the current approach, and the Welsh Government is committed to develop policies that will address this issue once it becomes clear what the final Brexit deal will be.”

Back in St Dogmaels, looking out over the water that has been his workplace for the majority of his life, Mr Walters remains clear: “Most politicians don’t know anything about fishing but they all have an opinion on it.

“In March next year, we should regain sovereignty of our waters, as long as Theresa May doesn’t throw the opportunity away. If there is a transition period then she will be signing the death warrant of the UK fishing industry.

“Brexit is a fantastic opportunity. I can’t wait for it. It’s a chance for us to rebuild our coastal communities and our fishing industry here in Wales, and it’s one we should take.”

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