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‘Final nail in coffin’ for distant-water fishing after Brexit talks break down

The £50m super-trawler ‘Kirkella’ is currently stuck at docks in Hull
(UK Fisheries Ltd/PA)

There was anger yesterday as the collapse of post-Brexit talks over access to Norwegian seas spelt the end of the UK’s distant-water fishing industry, which had lasted centuries.

Hundreds of fishermen and support staff face being left without work, while fish and chip shops across Britain will be selling Arctic cod imported from Norway rather than landed by UK ships.

Owners of the super-trawler Kirkella are to meet within days to discuss the future of the £50m state-of-the-art vessel, currently laid up in Hull, with options expected to include its sale, reflagging or leasing to operators overseas.

Hull West and Hessle MP Emma Hardy told The Independent the failure of talks was a “devastating” blow not only for jobs and incomes in the city but for “Hull’s proud maritime history which was built on its distant fleet”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also said fishing communities had been “betrayed by the prime minister”.

“Whichever way people voted – Leave or Remain – they don’t deserve this,” he said.

Britain was forced by Brexit to renegotiate its access deal with Oslo, which had previously been guaranteed by an EU-Norway agreement as part of the Commons Fisheries Policy. The collapse of talks on Thursday means British vessels have no rights to fish in Norwegian sub-Arctic waters in 2021.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the UK had put forward a “fair offer” on access, but the two sides’ positions were too far apart.

Jane Sandell, the chief executive of the Kirkella’s owners UK Fisheries, described the “disastrous” no-deal outcome as “a very black day for Britain”.

She said that Environment secretary George Eustice “owes our crews and the Humberside region an explanation as to why Defra was unable even to maintain the rights we have had to fish in Norwegian waters for decades”.

Failure to reach an agreement would be “devastating” for the 100 crew employed by UK Fisheries, she said.

The Hull-based Kirkella was, until recently, catching 10 per cent of the fish sold in UK chip shops as the last survivor of a once-proud distant-water fleet.

Hull East MP Karl Turner told The Independent it was “absolutely disgusting” to see the world-leading vessel tied up in King George dock, rather than out at sea.

“Brexit was supposed to be the fishing industry’s salvation,” he said. “We had shysters like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson running around saying this was an opportunity to get the fishing industry back.

“We have been warning them about this for at least two years and I fear this is probably the nail in the coffin for fishing in Hull. The industry was promised the earth and got nowt.”

And Ms Hardy said: “This is on the government’s doorstep. They can’t blame the EU any more. They have no one to blame but themselves.”

The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations called for “full scrutiny and analysis” of the failed negotiations.

“The loss of very significant fishing opportunities will carry direct consequences for the vessels and fishing businesses concerned but also a range of indirect consequences, including fleet displacement,” the industry body said in a statement.

Labour called for urgent support from the government to protect jobs and support coastal communities.

Negotiations on fishing rights for 2021 were due to have concluded by the end of last year, but were delayed as Mr Johnson took his trade deal with Brussels to the last possible minute, only reaching an agreement on Christmas Eve.

This cleared the way for talks with Norway to begin in January, meaning the early months of this year had already been lost.

The absence of a deal will mean Norwegian ships are excluded from UK waters, giving Scottish vessels greater opportunities to catch mackerel. But consumers’ preference for white fish like cod and haddock means that the oily fish has only a small fraction of the UK market.

A Defra spokesperson said: “We have always been clear that we will only strike agreements if they are balanced and in the interests of the UK fishing industry.

“We put forward a fair offer on access to UK waters and the exchange of fishing quotas, but we have concluded that our positions remain too far apart to reach an agreement this year.”

Negotiations for an agreement for 2022 are expected to begin in the autumn.