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End of the line? How Brexit left Hull’s fishing industry facing extinction

<span>Photograph: UK Fisheries Ltd/PA</span>
Photograph: UK Fisheries Ltd/PA

At 4am on 24 April 2019, 25 brass players, two percussionists and a conductor piled into a coach in Hull for a 200-mile drive to London. It was a Wednesday morning and it had been touch and go whether all of them would be able to get time off from their day jobs to make the trip. Seven hours later, they stood on the quayside at Greenwich, as Princess Anne swung a bottle of champagne at the looming yellow hull of the UK’s newest and biggest whitefish trawler.

Many of the people gathered that day had voted for Brexit in the EU referendum and hopes were high that it would usher in a new era for a British industry that had been dwindling for years. The Kirkella was the larger of two new boats built by the private company UK Fisheries in 2018, at a combined cost of nearly £59m, landing fish at Hull for the first time in a decade. The Princess Royal summed up the optimistic mood on the quayside when she offered her congratulations “to the owner for their investment in the future of fishing”. As the bottle smashed against the boat, the players launched into a lung-busting rendition of Hearts of Oak. Before they had even finished playing, recalls Tony Newiss, cornet player and chairman of the City of Hull Band, the heavens opened and everyone got drenched.

Princess Anne launches the Kirkella in 2019.
Princess Anne launches the Kirkella in 2019. Photograph: Jim Forrest/Alamy

Two years on, the scene could serve as a portent of troubles that were to come. Snarled up in negotiations over fishing rights, which now have to be negotiated with each of the countries in whose waters it works, the UK’s last distant-water trawler sits idle, unable to work in its normal patch off the coasts of Norway, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. The vessel has not only been blindsided by the repercussions of Brexit, but is caught up in a longer tale of decline that goes back to the cod wars of the 20th century and a wider one of the unfolding climate crisis. Those with long memories can recall a time when there was enough cod and haddock for everyone in the seas around the UK, but warming waters have driven them north into the deeper, colder waters of the Nordic states. As a result of these changes in fish stocks, and the territorial squabbles that result, today’s fishing industry only represents 0.12% of the UK’s economy.

For the fishing community of Humberside, on the austerity-battered north-east coast of England, it is as if a slow-motion car crash has suddenly been fast-forwarded. The Kirkella is a super-efficient factory ship that processes and freezes the fish it catches and supplies one in every 12 fillets of cod and haddock eaten in the UK’s fish-and-chip shops. At an emotional adjournment debate in the House of Commons a fortnight ago, Emma Hardy, Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle, didn’t mince her words. In one failed negotiation, she said, “the secretary of state for the environment has handed over 8% of the UK’s market for takeaway fish-and-chip suppers to Norwegian and Icelandic fishermen and has cut English fishermen out of the market entirely. I suspect that there will be members on both sides of the house reflecting on how tragic it is that the government could not keep even that small part of our national British dish.”

The Kirkella’s problems are part of a bigger picture that stretches all the way down from this mighty industrial vessel, with its nets capable of landing 12 tonnes of fish in a single trawl, to small, line-fishing boats that fish closer to home. “Fishers from Penzance to Peterhead are out of work and angry,” said Hardy. “They have been badly let down and they have every reason and every right to ask why. Why are small fishing boats tied up and idle around our shores? Why can we not sell our high-quality catches to continental markets? Why have we lost fishing opportunities outside our own waters that we have fished for generations?”

These woes are an embarrassment for Brexiters, who wielded fishing as a key weapon in the campaign to quit the EU, promising that freedom from the much-reviled EU common fisheries policy would set the UK free to negotiate a bountiful future that has not come to pass. Within a week of the latest debate, the government was at it again, trumpeting a new trade deal with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, which brought good news for the UK’s cheese industry and Norway’s shrimp exports, but no change at all on fishing quotas. “Heigh ho. We’re all beginning to conclude that they really, genuinely don’t care,” said one insider. “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors going on. This just makes it easier for Norway to export its fish and if there is any benefit to UK fish processors it won’t be because UK vessels are catching more. The deal doesn’t mention quotas and there is no benefit to the fishermen of Hull.”

* * *

For Kirkella crew members Charlie Waddy and Jon Dixon, the impasse has meant sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. Waddy, who is first mate on the Kirkella, ruefully remarks that it is not such a problem for him: he has been fishing for 47 years and is looking to retire next year to spend more time with his wife, after a lifetime of being separated by the sea for at least six months of every year. But Dixon is only 31, with a young family to support. Both men have been going to sea since they were little more than children themselves and come from families whose lives have for generations been entangled – for better or worse – with one of the world’s most dangerous industries.

Waddy was just three years old when his father was drowned, one of five crew members to be lost from the Arctic Viking when the boat sank 16 miles off Flamborough Head in October 1961. The accident left his mother struggling to bring up seven children alone, but two of his cousins were fishers so, when he was 10 years old, they took him off to Iceland for the summer rather than leaving him kicking around on the docks. By his late teens he was fishing in his own right. He briefly considered swapping the sea life for a shore job as a firefighter, after becoming fascinated with firefighting protocols while studying for his bosun’s ticket, but found himself disbarred by a criminal record acquired at the age of 12 for trespassing on the dock. There have been seven Kirkellas over the years, he says, and he’s worked on the last three of them. His sitting-room wall is decorated with black-and-white photographs of 40 of the ships on which he has served.

Kirkella crewmates John Dixon and Charlie Waddy.
Kirkella crewmates John Dixon and Charlie Waddy. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

When Dixon’s father also died at sea, albeit of natural causes, Waddy took the younger man under his wing, talking him into studying for the qualifications that would enable him to rise up the ranks. “A lot of the crew come from tough backgrounds, as I did, always on the dock playing out,” says Waddy. “So I try to persuade the younger ones to get their certificates because it’ll give them a fall-back if there’s no more fishing.” Dixon is currently second mate and is about to resit part of his skipper’s exam. “I’ve no trouble with navigation, and the technical side of it, but I was never very good at school so the writing side is hard,” he says.

Two rotating crews of 34 work aboard the Kirkella, doing alternate voyages that generally last about six weeks. All are contracted as share fishermen, which means that they are technically self-employed, paid a share of the catch that they bring in. The money is good, but the work is hard. There is nothing predictable about a fishing trip: the weather, equipment malfunctions or simply the whereabouts of the fish can all affect the length of a voyage for a boat that will simply stay out until it has completed its catch of 780 tonnes of cod and haddock. Every fisher has a tale to tell about a narrow escape. Dixon was dragged overboard aged 18, when a cable got wrapped around his leg. But though the best moment of every voyage is when a boat has completed its catch and can turn for home, he says: “It’s a fantastic life; there’s nothing I’d rather do.”

In a normal year, Dixon would make three trips, but he has been stuck at home since September. “We’ve tightened our belts, making sure we’ve got enough to pay the bills and put food on the table for the kids, and it’s not just me but the whole crew.” During the early days of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, says Jane Sandell, chief executive of UK Fisheries, the firm made the difficult decision to send the Kirkella straight back out again for a double trip rather than changing over the crew. They ran out of milk and teabags and had to start rationing their food, “but we were right to do it, because it meant our men were in a bubble, when there were plague ships out there from Poland and France”.

Jane Sandell, chief executive of UK Fisheries.
Jane Sandell, chief executive of UK Fisheries. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Sandell is one of the rare women in a heavily male-dominated industry and among the few not to be born and bred to it. A one-time junior GB synchronised swimmer from Essex, she did her first degree in marine biology and arrived in Hull to study fisheries policy after becoming fascinated by “the people and policy that shaped the biology”. In Yorkshire, she married into an eighth-generation fishing family, who between them work four smaller boats at Scarborough. “There’s a lot of fishing talk at home,” she jokes, shooing a peacock away from the doorway of her office, which stands between the manicured lawns of a modern business park beneath the span of the Humber Bridge, on the outskirts of the old fishing town of Hessle.

Though its fleet had been declining for decades, six deep-water trawlers still worked from Hull at the start of millennium. But they were economically unviable and their owners were failing, so the Dutch and Icelandic-owned UK Fisheries bought them out and scaled the operation down. Today, Sandell presides over a fleet of just two trawlers and only the Kirkella routinely travels beyond the North Sea. “It was a case of rationalising: making the fleet match the opportunities, investing in sustainable fishing and not plundering the oceans.”

The new Kirkella replaced an older boat with the same name and is part of an £180m investment plan since UK Fisheries took over in 2006. Of this, £100m has already been spent, with a commitment to a further £80m if it can secure the quotas to make it viable to continue trading at Hull. The company’s most recent accounts, for 2019, report that, buoyed by the new boats, pre-tax profits had nearly doubled in a year. “While there will be a focus on the UK/EU negotiations due to Brexit, the relationship with the countries of the northern external waters [EU-speak for those that fall outside its control] will not be diminished in importance… very little is expected to change,” wrote its directors.

There’s a strong suspicion that the foreign ownership of UK Fisheries has played its part in the foot-dragging of the government in the negotiations for this particular area of fishing rights. This outrages Waddy, who says: “Hull City AFC is owned by an Egyptian and who complains about that?” Three out of every four crew members are British and it might be more were it not that only Russian engineers have the skills to maintain the filleting machines, part of a processing system that can transform fish from live creatures lifted flapping from the ocean to deep frozen fillets ready to be plunged into the fryer in just 40 minutes.

The treaties that govern the distant-water sector of British fishing deliver a double-whammy to those trying to fish for cod and haddock. In leaving the EU, the UK forfeited its share of the fishing quota negotiated on behalf of member states with Norway, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, none of which is in the union. After Brexit, the UK signed an agreement with Norway that sounded good, but was really just an agreement to hold further talks, with nothing on actual quotas. Norway, meanwhile, hung on to its tariff-free access.

When no deal could be reached by the December 2020 deadline, British distant-water fishers were forced to travel further north, to forage for what they could in the colder and more treacherous waters off Svalbard, a group of islands off the north-eastern coast of Greenland, in a part of the Barents Sea that falls outside the Norwegian economic zone. But the quota is small, the conditions grim and the one trip the Kirkella has been able to make so far this year took nine weeks instead of the usual six to bring in a haul of far smaller, inferior-quality fish, says Sandell, who points out: “It’s not just about the economics, but the carbon footprint.”

On the quayside at Hull, with the catches landed by the port’s 164 trawlers, in 1951
On the quayside at Hull, with the catches landed by the port’s 164 trawlers, in 1951. Photograph: Bert Hardy/Getty Images

Some sceptics have pointed out that Humberside’s loss is Scotland’s gain, with the UK regaining control of its stocks of the shellfish, mackerel and herring that abound off the Scottish coast and are highly valued in Scandinavia and Europe. For all the teething troubles in the early months of Brexit, which left Scottish fishers threatening to dump rotting fish in Downing Street because the new bureaucracy had made it impossible to sell their highly perishable products abroad, the Scottish fleet, which largely fishes the shallower waters of the North Sea, is doing comparatively well. “That fleet is already the biggest, and perhaps only, winner from Brexit and makes up only a modest part of the UK fleet as a whole,” said Hardy during the parliamentary debate.

In reply, Victoria Prentis, under secretary of state for farming, fisheries and food, said she didn’t recognise the picture that had been painted of the jobs situation in Hull, nor did she share Hardy’s analysis. “We believe that there is a bright and sustainable future for the industry.”

Even on Humberside itself, not every heart bleeds for the plight of the Kirkella. “UK Fisheries only employs about 100 men, when in the 1970s there were thousands and thousands, so there’s not a great deal of sympathy in the city,” says retired fisher Ray Coles. “This industry collapsed virtually overnight with the cod wars and the governments of the time did nothing to save it.” Iceland was the hands-down winner in the cod wars, which raged between the 1950s and the 1970s, at its height pitting Icelandic gunboats against the British navy. The outcome was an international agreement to extend Iceland’s territorial waters to 200 miles. “They’ll never let anyone into their waters again and why should they?” says Coles.

Aboard Hull trawler Ross Orion in the fishing grounds off Greenland in 1967.
Aboard Hull trawler Ross Orion in the fishing grounds off Greenland in 1967. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Now aged 78, Coles is a founder member and past chairman of the Hull Bullnose Heritage Group, named after an area of the old docks where families gathered to wave off their loved ones. It’s a memorial charity set up to honour the 6,000 fishermen from the city estimated to have died at sea between the 1800s and the present day. In April 2019, the charity opened the Fishing Heritage Centre, a little museum nestled behind green shutters on a rundown corner of Hessle Road. On a sunny day in early June, the centre is firmly shut, one of many closed buildings in a wide and down-at-heel street that was once the bustling centre of Hull’s fishing industry.

But the pandemic hasn’t stopped its founder members in their tracks. Coles is one of a group that have been advising on – and, improbably, starring in – a fishing heist movie produced, written and directed by self-styled “accidental film-maker” Andrew Fenton, who set up his own production company to make a feature film to celebrate the last survivors of the good old, bad old days. Former MPs John Prescott and Alan Johnson and one-time archbishop of York John Sentamu appear alongside five old trawlermen in The Last Trip, which, says Fenton, aims to do for Hull’s fishing community what The Full Monty did for the steelworkers and Brassed Off did for the miners. He’s been drip-feeding scenes from it out on social media and is hoping to premiere it later this year at Hull’s Odeon cinema.

Though the focus of The Last Trip is on the characters and anecdotes of the town’s fishing history, it is also a last hurrah for one of the city’s star trawlers. Jacinta, one of three boats that feature in the film, was finally sent for scrap in October last year. During a 23-year working life, which ended in 1995, she brought in fish worth more than £17.3m, in one year netting the biggest catch in Hull’s history. She ended her life as a floating heritage museum.

A catch being landed at Hull in 1967.
A catch being landed at Hull in 1967. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The film reflects a deep emotional relationship with fishing that has shaped the whole culture of Hull. Down in a waterfront amphitheatre, in the shadow of the city’s state-of-the-art aquarium, The Deep, local playwright John Godber is staging a sea-shanty version of Herman Melville’s great fishing novel, Moby-Dick, with a cast of young actors, all of whom were either born or now live within 20 miles of the city. “In the 1830s, Hull had lots of theatres but they couldn’t function because of the [smell from the] whale oil bubbling away in an industry controlled by white, middle-aged men like Ahab. So I thought, why not take the story as a metaphor for fishing?” says Godber.

It was on whaling that Hull’s maritime fortunes were founded as far back as the mid-16th century and by the early 19th century the city provided 40% of the British whaling fleet. But a series of disasters, including the loss of 15 boats in the space of two years in the very waters that the Kirkella now plies, hit the industry so hard that, by 1870, not a single whaler remained in the city. That fishing could go – is going – the same way is the fear in the back of every fisher’s mind.

During the parliamentary debate, Prentis pointed to the associated businesses, in particular Humberside’s fish processing industry, concentrated in Grimsby, which now accounts for more than 30% of seafood processing jobs in the UK, with more becoming available all the time. But Grimsby is under 40 miles away from Hull and the two have always been rivals. “It’s an insult to suggest that highly skilled fishermen from Hull would go and take onshore factory jobs in Grimsby,” says Hull East’s Labour MP, Karl Turner.

* * *

It is however true that, while the Kirkella’s catch arrives back in port ready packed and frozen, bypassing the local processing industry entirely, processing itself is doing just fine, even if nearly all the fish that passes through it now comes from foreign waters and foreign boats. At Grimsby’s fish market, about 70 masked and gowned merchants gather at 7am five days a week for the auction of the previous day’s catch. By 7.30am, it is all over, bar the sluicing out of the cavernous auction-hall floors. A few polystyrene boxes lie around, waiting to be sent on their way. They’re all filled with neat rows of haddock, except for one which is topped off by the sinister, gaping jaws of a large monkfish.

Cleaning up in Grimsby fish market.
Cleaning up in Grimsby fish market. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

In side rooms, work continues through the day to fillet, grade and pack the fish, 80% of which is imported these days from Iceland alone. It’s been like this for 30 years. “Everyone always assumes the fish they’re eating is from the sea they’re looking at, but it never is,” says the market’s chief executive, Martyn Boyers, an affable, athletic figure who strides around in outsize wellington boots. Outside, the sun shines down on a little harbour bobbing with boats. They are mainly involved in servicing the offshore renewable energy industry, says Boyers. The quayside is piled high with crabbing cages; most of the local fishing that still happens off Yorkshire and south down the Lincolnshire coast is for crabs, whelks and lobsters, eked out by work as support vessels to offshore oil rigs and wind turbines.

There are said to be up to 10 jobs ashore for every one at sea and the market’s processing rooms offer a glimpse of some of them. Carl, who has been filleting fish day-in day-out for 42 years, can separate a haddock from its bones in seconds. He keeps his razor-sharp knife flashing as he describes a life built around 13-hour days. But even this work is drying up. Where the market used to have as many as 2,000 people filleting away, now it’s down to 26. “Filleting is a lost art,” he says. “You worry about the continuity because this really is an art form and most of us are getting on.” Just outside the processing room, Donna is mopping the fishy floors. She says her daughter, Tracy, is training to be a filleter, though she will be a rarity. Most women work on the scaling and packing side.

Grimsby docks.
Grimsby docks. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

A few hundred metres away, processing specialist Jaines and Son is thriving, its activities caught on a bank of video screens. Eighty per cent of what it processes is cod and haddock, with 20% “mixed species”, including salmon and shellfish, which it buys from all over Europe and beyond and sends out to restaurant chains, pubs and small fish-and-chip shops around the UK. Here, food security is all: every consignment carries precise details of where, when, how and by which boat it was caught. The previous day, it processed 18,000kg of fish, says owner Chris Sparkes, who bought the company in 1990. His factory foyer is decorated with a pictorial record of a proud, three-generation involvement in Grimsby’s fishing industry, which by the 1950s claimed to be the largest fishing port in the world. Sparkes, who now employs 80 people, started out as a “lumper”, carting barrowloads of fish around the docks. His son runs a popular boutique fishmonger in north London.

Bumper sales of cod and haddock are expected this summer, as UK tourists, forced by travel restrictions to staycation, pile into seaside fish-and-chip shops to buy “the nation’s national dish”. Down the road in Cleethorpes, the season is already getting under way, with children burying each other in the sand and taking donkey rides along the beach, as parents try to keep them still for long enough to slather them with suncream in the unfamiliar heat.

Back in Hull, fish-and-chip shop owner Carl McGlone says: “It’s all haddock round here, because basically cod is considered the poor man’s fish.” He’s seen some changes since he took over the Cave Street Fisheries 36 years ago. “Originally, fish and chips was the working man’s meal, but now it’s more of a dinner or a family occasion.” Humberside prides itself on its big portions – down the road in Leeds, says McGlone, they are half the size – but it’s getting harder for small traders to get hold of premium fish.

“Personally, because it’s my passion, I tend to know what boats are fishing in what areas. If I can get line-caught fish, I’ll get it, but there aren’t many boats left,” he says. “Right now, it’s probably the hardest that it’s ever been. It won’t go another generation, because if you buy a fish shop, you’re buying work and not many people these days want to work 14 or 15 hour days.”

On the beach at Cleethorpes, where fish and chips remains a main attraction.
On the beach at Cleethorpes, where fish and chips remains a main attraction. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Since the referendum, the price of fish has risen dramatically “and it’s going to get worse because there isn’t the competition from the British fleet. We’re like lambs to the slaughter at the moment, because we have no choice.” Simply by dint of its 8% market share, prices are pretty much bound to rise further once the Kirkella’s owner, UK Fisheries, has run through its stockpile of frozen fish.

In common with most of the Humberside population, McGlone voted for Brexit in the referendum. “I voted on the information I was given and within three days I just knew I’d voted the wrong way,” he says. The Kirkella is currently sitting out its furlough in dry dock in Norway – for maintenance, say its owners, though rumours are rife that it is being sized up for sale. “How long can they afford to keep it idle?” asks Karl Turner. “This is not about Leave versus Remain or left versus right - it is about what is right and what is wrong. They have been let down by this government.” A processing colleague of Chris Sparkes puts it in more salty terms: “It’s the result of pure and utter incompetence,” he rages. “In 2019, Boris Johnson came to Humberside and was greeted incredibly warmly. He wouldn’t want to go to a fish market today. It’s an outrage.”