Sitting just a few yards from the Houses of Parliament, its crew of 2 or 3 men waved over to a handful of MPs, researchers and myself. Holding up their Brexit bunting of flags and banners, they wanted their voices heard in the corridors of power.
I deemed their campaign more important than the weekly PMQ theatrics, and I made sure that I was on the Terrace ready and waiting to greet them. As I looked down-river towards the London Eye, an armada of fishing boats appeared coming towards us. Managing to dodge the river cruises and ferries, one-by-one they slid under Westminster Bridge and emerged into the shadow of Big Ben.
Onlookers on Westminster Bridge began to gather as they realised a water-based protest was about to kick off. This wasn’t your bog-standard protest in Parliament Square, this was a full on fleet of fishing trawlers powering up the Thames. A throng of fishing boats was now huddled around Parliament.
MPs began to unfurl their Vote Leave banners and hold them up in an act of solidarity to the many fisherman who had steamed hundreds of miles from far and wide. Most people walking the streets of London would probably have never seen a fishing trawler before let alone a whole fleet of them. It’s easy for metropolitan areas like London to take for granted where their food comes from and how it gets to them.
For many watching that day, it would be the first time that they had seen the actual fishermen who catch their cod, their haddock, their salmon or their lobsters. These brave souls sail out in the harshest of weathers to earn their living and put fish on our plates. As if fishing weren’t hard enough in itself, they have had to contend with the suffocating rules and regulations of the Common Fisheries Policy that has decimated their industry.
Then as the final trawlers assembled outside Parliament a white vessel emerged from arches of Westminster Bridge. Music blared from its top deck as people stood and jeered down at the fisherman. They held and waved their “in-crowd” posters. Amongst this small group of liberal luvvies was multi-millionaire Bob Geldof, yelling down his microphone as he tried to offer some “alternative facts” on the fishing industry.
Apparently the UK had some of the most generous fishing quotas in the EU. Apparently the Common Fisheries Policy hadn’t decimated our fishing industry at all.
As the fisherman continued to proudly hold up their Brexit banners we then saw the real contempt from the liberal elite just a few yards away as they threw verbal insults and stuck two fingers up at them.
For me, this was the image that always resonates with me when I think of the EU Referendum. It showed the separation between the metropolitan liberal class and the rural, salt of the earth, communities up and down the country. Their lives have been ruled by unelected commissioners and the bureaucrats who have impinged on every aspect of their working lives.
Thankfully a week later, the fisherman who sailed up the Thames and the many others up and down Britain who wanted Brexit were vindicated and cheering, while the out-of-touch liberal elites who had looked down on them and sneered were not. That night of the 23rd June will live long in my memory.
I come from a coastal area which once had a thriving fishing industry. I grew up in North Cornwall as a keen angler with a Dad who built boats for a living.
I don’t come from a family of fisherman, but I know all too well about the damage that the EU and the CFP have inflicted upon Cornish fishing communities and the many, many others around the country.
It was very easy to sit in a campaign office in Westminster and spout the virtues of being a member of the EU and produce scare stories, but go down to an actual fishing community on the coast of Cornwall and you’ll see the real consequences of our membership over four decades.
The fact that their historical fishing grounds were overrun with foreign trawlers carrying huge quotas was unmentioned in Remain campaign literature.
The total number of fishermen in the UK is around 12,000, down from around 20,000 in the mid-1990s. The number of fishing vessels in the UK fleet has fallen by 28% since 1996, and it’s shameful that we saw a situation where fisherman were paid to burn their boats and their livelihoods.
You don’t have to travel far along the Cornish coast before you come across a fishing village. Of course, fishing boats can be seen down on the beaches or floating in the harbour, but the vibrancy of these coastal communities has gradually diminished over the years.
Cornwall produces a fantastic quality of fish, and I believe it can become the “Waitrose of the world” if we take back full control of our waters get on to a sustainable footing and get our fisherman catching the fish and exporting it abroad.
However, at the moment, the amount of fish that our fisherman have been able to claim has reduced and we now find ourselves having to preserve certain species because EU policy has allowed them to be dangerously overfished. That’s why a domestic fisheries policy will also serve the interests of conservation as well as commerce.
In the months since the referendum, Remainers have continued to put forward soft Brexit ideas by wanting to stay members of the Single Market. Wanting to stay a member of the Single Market but having no place at the table is possibly the worst deal you could ask for.
There is no such thing as soft or hard Brexit – just Brexit.
Thankfully, the Prime Minister has confirmed that we will be ceasing membership of the Single Market with no half in-half out arrangement. We can now look forward to the end of the CFP and the beginning of a domestic fisheries policy which is accountable to Parliament and Whitehall.
This said, although I want to see British fisherman and British trawlers being put first and having the lion’s share of the quotas, we should not turn our back on our fishing friends across the channel or those British fisherman who land fish in foreign countries.
British fisherman will want to fish in EU waters and land fish in EU countries, and European fisherman want to catch fish in British waters. There is no problem in this, providing Britain’s waters are managed exclusively by British authorities and not from Brussels.
British vessels land around 400 thousand tonnes of fish each year in the UK, and between 200 thousand and 300 thousand tonnes abroad. Our foreign markets are very important, and this includes the EU. I’m sure we can come to an agreement on this so that British fisherman get a fairer deal in our own waters, while allowing a level of access to European boats and markets.
However, there must be red lines, such as the free movement of people and territorial waters. Any request from Brussels that we maintain freedom of movement or that we share fishing grounds under a European authority and a common policy must not be accepted.
Once we leave the EU, it is imperative is that our fisherman are put first, and that we have proper policies and authorities in place to make sure that stocks are managed better quotas are fairer and that the industry can grow and thrive.
At the moment, the CFP is doing the very opposite. Landings by the UK fleet were down in 2015 by around 7% compared to 2014 and the value of landings is 11% lower in real terms than in 1994.
There are markets emerging all over the world which we can take advantage of through the Department for International Trade and I want to see our fisherman in Cornwall putting more fish not just on plates in Cornwall, but on plates around the world.
The UK is a net importer of fish. Net imports stood at around 238,000 tonnes in 2015. Of course there will be various types of fish and shellfish which we will always have to import, but it is absurd that we have to import fish that can be caught in our own waters.
A domestic fisheries policy needs to make sure we have a sustainable fisheries system whereby fisherman aren’t scared to land more fish than what they were allowed to catch. Of course we want to deter fisherman catching more than permitted on purpose, but a mechanism needs to be in place whereby dead fish are not wasted because catches exceed quotas.
I believe in Britain, and I believe we can lead the world with our trade, our skills and our policies. We must never again allow communities up and down this great nation become excluded.
I stand with the fisherman, and I will be fighting to ensure a Red, White and Blue fisheries policy is implemented.