Port demos ‘just the start’, government and MPs warned
Fishermen have held mass port demonstrations in a show of unity to protest against the two-year Brexit transition period that could threaten the survival of many smaller boats, reports Tim Oliver
Around 200 vessels mobilised in flotillas at several ports in England and Wales and were supported by thousands of members of the public. Ports included Whitstable, Hastings, Portsmouth, Milford Haven and Weymouth, with the largest turn-outs in Newcastle and Plymouth – some 55 vessels took part in the latter port.
Organisers Fishing for Leave (FFL) welcomed the success of the demonstrations and thanked members for their hard work and the public for their support.
The group said it was now important that the politicians pay heed not only to the fishermen but the thousands of people who turned out at short notice, to support from the quaysides. A minibus was even hired for supporters from Stoke-on-Trent.
“They did a fantastic job and should be massively proud of showing politicians the depth of feeling in coastal communities that are not prepared to be betrayed a second time without a fight,” said FFL’s Aaron Brown.
“These were peaceful protests conducted with black humour and high professionalism, even when ‘Remainers’ chained themselves to the boat Thereason May, which was symbolically burned at Whitstable.
“These events weren’t a party but a full-throated protest”
“These events weren’t a party but a full-throated protest. We’re sick to death of being dismissively portrayed as being expendable when we are anything but. Fishing is a primary wealth-generating industry, providing food security and employment in ancillary industries in rural coastal areas.”
He said repatriating UK fishing grounds and the 60% of the fish the EU catches in them is worth a potential £6-8bn a year to coastal and rural communities, and can create tens of thousands of jobs.
“The government is dismissing this opportunity and fishing communities,” said Aaron Brown. “We are sickened by Remainers gleefully peddling the deliberate narrative that fishing doesn’t matter.”
FFL lambasted prime minister Theresa May who said, on a recent visit to Denmark, that she wanted ‘fair and reciprocal access’ to waters for Denmark’s fishermen after Brexit. The group insists that any future access should be only on a ‘needs must’ equal swap basis.
Aaron Brown said, “Sadly it seems Mrs May’s idea is the same as her predecessor Heath – that Britain’s greatest natural resource, and coastal communities, are expendable negotiating capital, as her capitulation to trapping Britain’s fishing in transition shows.
“Theresa May needs to stop playing with real people’s lives, futures and businesses in coastal communities.
“She must reverse the capitulation on fishing and categorically promise that we will be entirely free of the CFP come March 2019 or consign another British industry to a museum piece and memory, as the EU culls what’s left in 21 months – otherwise, these peaceful protests will just be a start.”
Comments from ports – ‘An armada of defiance’
Skipper Shane Farrow, who organised the Plymouth demonstration with skipper Steve Walker, said he ‘looked down on the Hoe with pride’ at ‘an armada of defiance’ and ‘a thousand or so public supporters around us, cheering, clapping and waving their flags and banners in support’ and knowing this was happening all over the country.
“Not only coastal communities but non-fishers from all over the country were standing united and the shackles that have chained our beloved industry were crumbling in front of me,” he said.
“The fishermen from the South West were united in their cause to show the government that their weakness and willingness to trade away our livelihoods had met its match.”
But he said it was unfortunate that coastal MPs were not present to support the protest. Tens of invitations had gone out across the region, but not one had accepted.
“That said, we were pleased to receive letters of support from Luke Pollard, Derek Thomas and Sheryll Murray,” he said. “We are now reminding these coastal MPs that they are MPs both because of, and to represent, the very people who were on those vessels and on the Hoe.
“Now is the time and now is the hour, our votes depend on it, this beloved industry will no longer idly stand by at the mercy of others. We will fight until the last day, the last hour and the last minute.
“The public are with us and support is growing daily, so please let’s bring the control back to the people who have a natural birthright to it.
“A huge thank you is due to every single person who attended on the day, I am personally forever grateful for the support, and am sure if future events are needed they will only be bigger and better.”
Chris Attenborough, who organised the protest at Whitstable, said the joint effort by fleets from so many ports, and the ‘vast show’ of public support showed how much fishing and reclaiming our territorial waters means to coastal communities.
“It’s about time our government stepped out of their London ‘bubble’ and started facilitating the Brexit that the majority voted for,” he said.
“We were promised out of the CFP in March 2019; now we are told January 2021, still with no definition or vision of how the industry will look. The government needs to stop dangling the carrot and help make this industry one to be proud of again. There is not a more opportune moment than now to rejuvenate our coastal communities and economies.
“What has befallen this industry in the past 10 years you couldn’t begin to dream up – the vast difference between science and what fishermen witness on the ground, the mind boggles.” He said the discards ban was ‘extremely worrying’, with bass and skate the two main problems locally.
“The CFP is archaic and cannot keep up with the natural changes and migrations of fish stocks. It is also very dangerous and concerning for us to espouse the CFP during the transition phase, as there are numerous methods other than quotas that the EU can use to potentially bankrupt us.
“We need to know how the government envisages our industry after we leave the EU, and we need to start seeing actions, ie pilot projects/trials, not just feeble words.”
Young Rhys Wonnacott, who organised the Milford Haven demonstration at the age of only 14, said 10 boats took part, ranging from 19ft to around 45ft.
“We used orange smoke to show the danger that the industry is in,” he said. “Many people turned out to support on land with banners and placards. We managed to explain to lots of people what the CFP is and how we have been affected and will be affected if it doesn’t change next year.
“It was nice to see boats of all sizes take part and come together, united as one, and being supported by the public. The event culminated in the burning of the EU flag. I feel proud to have done this, and will continue to fight for the future of the industry.”
Aaron Brown paid tribute to the hard work of other organisers of demonstrations in other ports. He said: “Chris Attenborough in Whitstable deserves special mention for the boat burning and the professionalism in the organisation ashore, with the harbour festooned in banners of defiance.
“David White in Hastings rallied fishermen all along the coast, above and beyond the call of duty, with nearly every boat on the Sussex coast attending.
“Peter Williams in Portsmouth ran things with such a degree of clockwork precision that even the Royal Navy and Queen’s harbour master were impressed.
“And young Rhys Wonnacott from Milford, at 14, is surely testimony to the fact there are youngsters passionate about following in their fathers’ footsteps if given the chance for the green shoots to be nurtured if family fishing is continued.”
Warning to politicians: ‘This is just the start’
In a warning to the government and coastal MPs, Aaron Brown said that to sacrifice tens of thousands of jobs, and communities, to appease a few ideological pro-EU vested interests is ‘a second betrayal that would have dire electoral consequences for coastal MPs’.
He also warned that if the government and politicians did not start listening to the industry, the port protests would be ‘just the start’ of a sustained campaign.
He said, “These protests show that coastal MPs must listen to the thousands who turned up at short notice and the many more in the public who support this totemic industry.
“MPs should remember they serve their constituents who elect them – not a dismissive chief whip. If MPs have any inkling of self-preservation, they must heed what we are saying and put country before party, and remember that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ and coastal constituencies count.”
He said the politicians now know for sure that the transition deal is unacceptable, and they must be ready to walk away if the EU is not prepared to offer a deal ‘worth more than a packet of Smarties’ to dissuade others from leaving. Otherwise, they would be ‘culled in those constituencies, in the same way our fleet will be’.
“Fishermen are not going to take being thrown to the wolves lying down, and these protests will just be the start if patriotism, decency and good sense do not prevail.”