British fishermen tired of taking 'scraps' from Brussels are counting down the days to Brexit

So just how tangled up are the U.K. and the EU a year out from Brexit? Margaret Evans finds plenty of answers in a quaint fishing community in Cornwall, where many are sick of the EU's fishing quotas but depend on tariff-free access to its markets.

Just how tangled up are the U.K. and Europe? The answers can be found in a quaint fishing town in Cornwall

David Stevens voted in favour of the U.K. leaving the European Union. He says EU fishing quotas have made life difficult for British fishermen like himself. (Lily Martin/CBC)

They still like a Canadian down in Cornwall.

The fishermen here all remember flying the Maple Leaf on their boats in solidarity back in 1995, when Canada and Spain went to battle on the high seas in the Turbot War.

Back then, anyone taking on European Union boats accused of overfishing, especially Spanish boats, could count on the support of not just Cornish fishermen, but of the entire British fishing fleet.

Canada accused Spanish boats of overfishing turbot using outlawed nets and actually fired shots across the bow of a Spanish trawler called the Estai in international waters off the coast of Newfoundland. Mounties and Fisheries Department officers seized the boat and arrested its captain. 

More than two decades later, with Britain's official exit date from the European Union now just under a year away, Cornish fishermen are on the verge of escaping what many of them call the ill-founded and tyrannical rule of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

A crew unloads a catch at Newlyn Harbour in southwestern England. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"I've been in this trade 35-plus years, and I've seen the decline because of the overfishing," said Edwin Hosking, landings co-ordinator for a Cornish seafood company called FalFish at Newlyn Harbour, located near Penzance on Britain's southwestern tip.

"Not by our local boats, but because we're being given scraps by Brussels, and we've seen the boats from France and Belgium come and take what they can take out of our own waters."

'Unbelievably difficult'

The EU's complicated manner of deciding fish quotas for its members sees nearly 60 per cent of the fish caught in the waters around Britain being landed by boats from other EU countries. 

Cornish fishermen, for example, are limited to eight per cent of the cod quota in their own waters, while the French can catch 73 per cent.

A fisherman shows off a catch at Newlyn Harbour. The fishing industry accounts for less than one per cent of the British economy. (Lily Martin/CBC)

There are reasons for the formula, which is based in part on historical catches, the migration patterns of fish and sustainability concerns. But it's hard for locals to stomach. 

"We leave the harbour here to take 25 different species, and each one has a different quota level," said David Stevens, who runs a trawler out of Newlyn Harbour along with his brother. 

"And the U.K. has very little quota for quite a few of those species, so trying to manage the catch is just unbelievably difficult."

Stevens says Prime Minister Edward Heath sold the fishing fleet out back in 1973 when he gave European boats access to British waters as the price of admission to the EU.

"It was sold out to get into the EU, and it's being sold out to get out of the fleet, it's unbelievable."

Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed that Britain will remain subject to the Common Fisheries Policy for a further two years after Brexit becomes official as part of a transition arrangement. 

The Cornish fishermen — and many elsewhere in the U.K. —  are furious. Not to mention wary about what might happen down the road when Britain tries to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU.

A visit to the Newlyn Fish Market shows why.

The market is usually going strong even before the sun comes up. Auctioneers and buyers wear white coats and rubber boots as they make their way around a slippery floor covered with boxes full of fish, anything from hake to something called the cuckoo ray, a type of stingray.

Edwin Hosking, landings co-ordinator for a Cornish seafood company called FalFish, says EU countries like France and Belgium are to blame for overfishing in British waters. (Lily Martin/CBC)

The occasional glassy eye or fish tail pokes out of the ice they're packed in. 

Most of the fish sold here are destined for Europe. Britain exports some 75 per cent of its fish to European markets.  And, excuse the pun, therein lies the catch.

Exporters want to keep their tariff-free access to those markets.

"We do export 30 per cent of our fish, and we have assurances from the French supermarkets that nothing's going to change on their part," said FalFish's Edwin Hosking. "We'll still get the orders."

Most of the fish sold at the Newlyn Fish Market are bound for European markets. (Lily Martin/CBC)

But the EU's seafaring nations will surely demand continued access to British waters as a price for keeping market access tariff-free.

And it's not outside the realm of possibility that the British government would agree to that if it were offered something it really needs in return in another sector.

Stevens would like to see fishing dealt with in isolation. But that's unlikely.

The Cornish fishermen were a huge part of the campaign to leave the EU and the quaint villages that dot the coast can pull on the country's heartstrings, triggering a nostalgia for a disappearing way of life.

A view of Newlyn Harbour. (Lily Martin/CBC )

But the reality is the fishing industry accounts for less than one per cent of the British economy. And not everyone in Cornwall wants out of the EU. 

"We've got to have unfettered access to those markets," said skipper Tom McClure as he hung a trap full of writhing crabs and one blue lobster over the side of his boat and lowered it into the water on a rope to keep the catch fresh.

'I just saw the broader picture' 

McClure voted to remain in the EU, calling the decision to leave short-sighted. 

"It wasn't just fishing. I just saw the broader picture really. The EU is very good at giving out grants and stuff like that, and that was part of the basis. I've had three grants to do work on this boat."

As one of the U.K.'s poorest regions, Cornwall has been the recipient of about £60 million a year in development funding.

Tom McClure voted against Brexit, unlike many of his fellow fishermen in Cornwall. He says EU grants have helped many people, including himself. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Even the Newlyn Fish Market — with its mainly pro-Brexit clientele — is undergoing a major renovation courtesy of EU money. 

The region's farmers and flower growers also rely heavily on EU workers, as does the fishing industry. But many workers have left since the 2016 referendum, uncertain of their future. 

"A lot of them panicked when we voted to come out of the European Union," said Hosking, although he is hopeful Britain will negotiate some kind of access for migrant labour.

Even pro-Brexit David Stevens says he hires Latvian workers to crew on his trawler. But he says he'll adapt to whatever happens in the future.

For him, the desire to leave the European Union remains a question of sovereignty and identity. 

"We are an island race. This is what we do. We go to sea, trading and fishing. If it wasn't for the sea, we wouldn't be the people we are. We are British because we have the sea." 

Cornish fishermen see liberation from EU as key to their future

4 years ago
Duration 3:44
Many Cornish fisherman are in favour of the U.K. leaving the European Union, with the official exit date now just under a year away. They say they are on the verge of escaping what many of them call the ill-founded and tyrannical rule of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, but some fear their government might backslide to secure a trade agreement with the EU


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.