Lionel Shriver

For cod’s sake, don’t sacrifice the fish

11 January 2020

9:00 AM

11 January 2020

9:00 AM

One of the more dispiriting experiences of the British supermarket is a visit to the fish counter. On a  historically seagoing island, the selection is often abysmal, frequently imported, and always expensive: farmed Norwegian salmon, farmed Vietnamese basa (blech), cod gone a suspicious taupe and priced like its weight in saffron (83 per cent of the cod consumed in the UK is also imported; why?) and maybe a few locally sourced mackerel or sardines, depending on the day.

Otherwise, vinegary cockles, leathery kippers and smoked haddock the garish colour of a child’s toy substitute for a fresh catch from British waters. Worse, at my nearest Tesco, as of two months ago there is no fish counter. Nearly all the prepackaged fillets in the refrigerated aisle are shipped from elsewhere.

I realise that we’re all looking forward to not talking about Brexit for a while. We can also hope that the Prime Minister is already clued-up about the idiosyncratic preoccupations of his citizenry, and doesn’t need more advice. Yet with trade talks in Brussels set to get under way after an EU departure that I’m lavishly on record as predicting would never happen (and I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to be wrong), this is an apt juncture at which to deliver Boris Johnson a special request from the British people: don’t sacrifice the fish.

Such an appetite has EU officialdom repeatedly signalled for the retention of access to British fishing grounds that it seems Eurocrats are anxious about their nutritional levels of omega-3. Given that around 60 per cent of the catch from British waters is landed by foreign vessels, Spain, Denmark, France and the Netherlands will apply intense pressure on Boris to cave. The fishing industry represents only 0.1 per cent of UK GDP (roughly on a par with leather goods, timber and the manufacture of sewing machines), a proportion that Britain’s digital sector alone beats by a factor of 92. The temptation to throw a few pilchards to Madrid in exchange for a sweet deal on services will be fierce.

Don’t do it. As with so many things Brexit, this is not an entirely rational matter. It’s about emotion. Commercial fishing entails brutal physical toil whose hardships have changed little over the centuries and whose profits for the many owners of single vessels are often meagre. A livelihood once handed down through families for generations and a potent symbol of enduring British tradition, fishing has become the unique focus of popular resentment over EU impositions.


Ordinary Britons need to be able to identify a few tangible benefits they derive from leaving the European Union that they can understand. Many aspects of any trade agreement are liable to seem abstract, and on the ground will translate drily into slightly higher or lower prices. But everyone understands fish. In acceding to unfavourable Common Fisheries Policy quotas on entry into the EC, Britain seemed to have sold its birthright for a bowl of soup. (Make that chowder.) The British identify hazily but sentimentally with a long maritime history, even if a large whack of the population doesn’t especially like fish.

Of course, it sounds simple — get Continental boats out of UK territorial waters, full stop — but isn’t. British vessels also fish in EU waters. Much of the British catch is exported to Europe, leaving the industry vulnerable to punitive tariffs. Withdrawal from the CFP wouldn’t change the fact that fish stocks have to be managed sustainably.

Yet trading fish needn’t involve access. The US imports shrimp from south-east Asia, but doesn’t invite Malaysian fishing fleets to pilfer the coast of Louisiana. Tariffs and loss of reverse access are hard nuts to crack. But nothing about regaining sovereignty over fishing grounds would prevent British conservation, which could be tailored to the UK’s shifting aquatic environment. Current CFP quotas are based on fishing statistics as long ago as 1973.

You know what the real problem is, don’t you? Enforcement.

A while back I coined two aphorisms that frequently inform my reading of current events. Both are germane in this case. 1) The temporary becomes the permanent.2) All privileges slide to rights.

I’m insufficiently expert to dictate what specific arrangements with the EU would optimise the profits of the British fishing industry and help revive our coastal communities — although I can guarantee that any deal on fish that screams ‘sell out!’ will be greeted with widespread popular consternation all out of proportion to the passing disgruntlement that would meet a lousy deal for sewing-machine manufacturers. But as far as the fishermen on foreign vessels currently enjoying access to UK waters are concerned, the temporary CFP arrangements conditioned on Britain’s EU membership have definitely become permanent.

As for privileges converting to rights? My favourite recent example is a ruling in Spain last month, which determined that Fujitsu employees were legally entitled to an annual Christmas hamper, the provision of which the company had eliminated in 2013 in the interest of austerity. (How telling that the indignant employees took their loss of red-onion chutney and chicken-liver pâté all the way to the Supreme Court.) The judges reasoned that because workers had come to ‘expect’ hampers, the gift baskets had become an acquired ‘right’.

Captains of Continental trawlers don’t believe they’ve been granted the ‘privilege’ of fishing in British waters; having done so for decades, they have a right to British waters. Which means that even if Boris does a bang-up job of restoring this island’s territorial seas to the realm, massive Danish scallop dredgers that claw up every living thing down to the mud will be right back off western Scotland the very next week — and in a spirit of self-righteousness as well. Patrolling the entire British coast for cheaters could prove not merely nightmarish but outright impossible. Ask George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith about what it was like to try to curtail the welfare state. They learned the hard way that it’s dead easy to give folks the goodies they want, be that personal independence payments, pâté or fish. It’s absolute murder taking the goodies back.

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