The Government is being urged to do more to help Plymouth’s fishing industry ride the Brexit storm.
Three Westcountry ports – Plymouth, Brixham and Newlyn – dominate the English fishing industry, though they are dwarfed by the Scottish fleet.
Plymouth council leader Tudor Evans told a Brexit inquiry: “There are people who are very excited about the benefits and opportunities of Brexit. A lot has been promised to fishermen, and we need to shine a light on those promises and see if they are real or not.”
British fishermen export about 70% of what they catch, and 80% of the fish eaten in Britain is imported, and Cllr Evans said the impact of a no-deal Brexit could mean long queues at ports, hampering fish exports.
“Every time I meet a Government minister I ask, ‘Where’s my lorry park? Where are the extra environmental health officers? Have you hired them yet?”
Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, and shadow Fisheries Minister, said the fishing industry “was the poster child of the Brexit campaign, and the impression was given that we would leave the Common Fisheries Policy on day one”.
He said there was now a genuine fear they could be betrayed.
“As a city we turned our backs on the marine environment for far too long. We have to protect the fishing industry through a period that could be incredibly disruptive.”
The council’s Brexit committee is formulating a response to the Government’s fisheries white paper – a precursor to a Fisheries Bill which will steer the industry outside the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.
Mr Pollard warned that there was a risk of a shortage of fishermen after Brexit. “It will take time to train new workers and there is no certainty that the industry will still exist in its present form by the time they are trained.”
Andrew Pilar from Interfish said they were trying to recruit locally but access to local training opportunities was not adequate.
“We want to attract youngsters in and show them that there is a genuine career path through to being a skipper.”
Rodney Anderson, former director of marine and fisheries at Defra, told the inquiry that the UK had the most profitable fishing industry in the EU overall.
He said Plymouth was uniquely placed to play a major role. “I can’t think of another major fishing port in a major city like this, with road links and access to Europe. What’s needed now is investment to capitalise on that.”
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But he warned that after Brexit, the four home nations will no longer be governed by a single fisheries policy and will promote their own interests.
Mr Anderson said there was a fundamental difference in approach to regulation between the Anglo Saxons and Southern European countries.
“We’ll work out a set of rules and try to apply them. On the Continent the rules will be aspirational and they will work out how you get there afterwards.”
Alison Pessell from Plymouth Trawler Agents said there was a high global demand for fish. “If the EU market closed tomorrow, there would be other people who would buy our fish.”
Peter Macconnell from the Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society told the committee that recreational sea angling was a huge opportunity for the region, with anglers spending £165 million a year in the South West.
Nationally, there is a £1.23 billion annual spending on sea angling – several times bigger than the entire commercial fishing industry.
He said Plymouth was one of the top three sea angling destinations, with regular visitors providing a welcome boost to the city’s tourism industry, particularly outside peak season.
However, he attacked illegal commercial fishing, such as people who go out on small boats and catch large numbers of fish to sell, and the practice of “fishing for the boat” on charter vessels.
Jonny Morris, who chaired the committee, said he would ask the council’s Cabinet to recommend that recreational angling should be considered as part of the whole approach to sustainable fisheries.
“The sea belongs to all of us, and we have to look after it, even when you are talking about fishing rights.”
He said Plymouth was ideally placed to be part of a pilot scheme to look at different ways of controlling the amount of fish that fishermen are allowed to catch. One suggested method would be to limit the number of days a trawler can be at sea.
David Pessell from Plymouth Trawler Agents said they were hampered by a lack of security at their Sutton Harbour premises. Landlords Sutton Harbour Holdings were in a position to give them four weeks notice to quit, he said.
The business has seen turnover soar from £700,000 in 1995 when it was set up to £18.8 million last year.
“Fishing has been in decline and Plymouth has bucked the trend, but our landlords failed to notice that,” he said.
He said that with most of the UK catch exported to Europe, “when holidaymakers go to Spain, they enjoy eating fish – but most of the fish is caught right here.”
More fishing news from Plymouth harbour
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