For Jim Portus, who has represented Devon and Cornish fishing interests for 33 years, the Brexit trade deal offered a sobering lesson in broken promises.
Having volunteered to delay his retirement as chief executive of the South West Fish Producers Organisation to see the Brexit deal through, Portus questioned the wisdom of his decision on Saturday.
“I thought we were going to get a wonderful victory, but many of the promises that were made have not been delivered,” said the 66-year-old.
Not only had the sector secured the opportunity to fish far less than they had expected, Downing Street’s claims of safeguarding the sovereignty of the fishing industry – regaining control over UK waters was a central message of the leave campaign in 2016 – appeared wide of the mark.
“The deal means we’re still tied to the apron strings of the EU, we’re not an independent coastal state,” said Portus, whose organisation represents almost a third of the 300 or so large trawlers operating out of ports such as Newlyn in south-west Cornwall and Brixham, south Devon. “We should have been deciding the rules and regulations on how to manage those stocks so that we took control of access arrangements for other countries.”
Fishing rights were one of the final sticking points in the post-Brexit trade talks, largely due to their political weight, but Portus feels that ultimately Boris Johnson caved in.
On Saturday, Barrie Deas, the chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisation, accused the prime minister of having “bottled it” on fishing quotas.
Portus added: “I’m at the end of my working life but he [Johnson] made promises directly to fishermen and I am very disappointed for them. We should be rebuilding our fleet, encouraging our youngsters. We should be planning for a resurgence instead of being sold down the river again.”
Before joining the SWFPO, Portus worked as a fisheries inspector and saw first hand what he felt were the negative impacts of the common fisheries policy, signed in 1970 and which dictated every EU fishing fleet had equal access to European waters.
“I’ve witnessed the despondency of the fishing industry for so long. We thought that after the referendum, when we were out of the common fisheries policy, [we would be] free from the influence from Brussels but we are harnessed to their regulations.
“Really annoyingly embodied in the deal is a reference to penalties and compensation which must be paid to foreign fishermen if we decide to deny them access to our 12-mile limit in five years’ time. It is disgraceful that he [Johnson] has allowed himself to be dictated to by Brussels.”
Elsewhere, UK Fisheries chief executive Jane Sandell said Johnson’s promise that the deal would allow the UK to “catch and eat quite prodigious quantities of extra fish” appeared hollow. “We’re still looking for the ‘prodigious amounts of fish’ we were promised and for us it changes nothing,” she said.
A senior member of the UK’s negotiating team defended the agreement, and described fish as “one of the areas where we had to compromise somewhat”, but said this had been done by “both sides”.
The official said: “Although there is a transition, at the end of the transition it returns to normal arrangements, and we have full control over our waters.
There’s a transition to that point and ideally we would’ve got out of it a bit faster, but where we’ve got to is acceptable and offers gains for the fisheries industry in the short run and a huge right to control everything and work within that after this five-and-a-half-year transition.”