Fishing — a Brexit Red Herring

Aaron Woolner
3 min readDec 10, 2020

Ill-informed and pointless — the UK:EU dispute over fishing rights is a metaphor for Brexit

My grandfather used to keep a box of red herrings under his bed. He would start every day by chomping on one of the briny, smoked fish for his breakfast. The smell was appalling and stank the whole house out, years later my mother would visibly grimace as she retold the story. But my grandfather didn’t care. The smell didn’t bother him, so it didn’t matter.

If he was alive today he would definitely support Brexit.

During the 1930s my hometown, Lowestoft, was a major North Sea fishing port, with so many fishing boats you could walk across them from one side of the harbour to the other. Try that today and you would plunge into the frigid water on your first step. There are no fishing boats left. Not one. Zero. Zilch. Head 10 miles up to the coast to Great Yarmouth and the story is the same. Another once mighty fishing port that no longer does any fishing.

And the explanation for this is simple: there are no fish to catch. The North Sea is dead, a watery desert, whose once abundant waters are empty as a result of a chronic combination of overfishing and environmental degradation — not because of predatory French fisherman stealing English people’s piscine birthright.

In 2019 fishing contributed a miserable 0.12% to the UK economy, with the vast majority of that cash coming from Scottish shellfish and fish farming. Fishing in the rest of the country contributes a rounding error to UK PLC’s bottom line.

Nothing sums up the benthivore mindset of the Brexit brigade better than the fact discussions over a UK:EU trade deal are stuck on the issue of fishing rights in the English Channel. French fishermen currently take 80% of the catch, which sounds a lot, until you realise that’s basically eight tenths of nothing.

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges memorably described the Falklands War as, “two bald men fighting over a comb”, but at least those islands have some resources — thriving fishing grounds and plentiful oil reserves. Compared to that the current dispute over fishing rights in British waters has all the purpose of two drunks in the park having a punch-up about an empty can of Special Brew.

It would be laughable if the consequences for the UK economy of a no deal weren’t so serious. Yesterday, Brexit-backing Ineos CEO, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, announced from his Monaco tax-haven that his “British” replacement to the Land Rover Defender would be built in France, because, well, he’ll make more money that way. At the same time Honda, who actually make cars in the UK and employ 1000s of British workers said they were pausing production because of supply chain issues linked to coronavirus and Brexit.

And Brexit hasn’t even happened yet.

The UK economy is headed for an economic apocalypse on January 1 and yet the country’s political leadership is splitting hairs over whether fisherman in Dover can catch five or ten cod next year. It’s an negotiating tactic that smells worse than the fish under my grandad’s bed.