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Distant Fleet Fishing: Kirkella Trawler

Volume 696: debated on Thursday 27 May 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Duguid.)

This year, the UK fishing industry set out on its voyage as part of a newly independent coastal state.

The Government made grand pronouncements about the benefits that would come flowing to the industry. However, rather than helping it to sail confidently across the promised sea of opportunity, the Government appear to have left it to become becalmed on a stagnant millpond.

Fishers from Penzance to Peterhead are out of work and angry. They have been badly let down, and they have every reason and every right to ask why. Why are small fishing boats tied up and idle around our shores? Why can we not sell our high-quality catches to continental markets? Why have we lost fishing opportunities outside our own waters that we have fished for generations? This Administration, and the Secretary of State for the Environment in particular, have sat back and watched as the whole industry slowly sinks. It beggars belief.

Throughout the Brexit negotiations this Government promised our fishermen that they would see great bounty from the fishing opportunities as our waters came back under the UK’s sovereign control. Instead, the pressure of competition from foreign fleets has not eased, even in the inshore areas that the Government promised to preserve for the UK fleet. No bounty there. What our fishers do catch is snared in red tape that makes exporting the catches to continental markets untenable. This is a crippling double-blow for our fishermen. If that was not damaging enough, the UK’s once-proud distant water fleet, whose very last remaining vessels bring jobs and great economic benefit to my constituency in Hull West and Hessle, has been holed below the waterline by a Government who have objectively failed to secure a single fisheries deal with any of their northern coastal neighbours—not a single one.

I will put that into context. There are four fisheries-based economies around the north Atlantic that are not EU members. The UK has had friendly relations with Norway, Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroes for years—at least since the Icelandic cod wars, which marked the beginning of the decline of the UK’s distant water fleet. As Brexit approached towards the end of last year, the Government trumpeted loudly that they had achieved historic fisheries deals with all those states, implying that all would be well for the UK’s distant water fleet. Those assurances now look to be disingenuous at best.

Two of the historic deals, with Greenland and Iceland, contain no basis for future negotiation over access to their waters for the UK fleet. The other two, with Norway and the Faroes, were merely agreements to sit down and talk at some later date. The fishing industry is dying now, not at some later date. The House will know that until 31 December 2020, the UK fleet had valuable and long-standing fishing rights in Norwegian and Greenlandic territorial waters worth millions of pounds. Those stocks cannot be replaced with quotas in UK waters. Arctic cod is abundant in their waters and non-existent in ours.

Until this year, Kirkella, a Hull-based ice-class distant waters trawler, was plying her trade in the sub-Arctic waters on trips lasting up to three months at a time, bringing home one in every dozen portions of cod and haddock sold for the UK’s fish and chip shops. She was the only UK vessel catching in those waters. Today, with no deal struck by this Government with either Norway or Greenland, this valuable British-caught fish will be lost to us, only to be replaced by the self-same fish, but this time caught by Norway and exported tariff-free into the UK market.

In one failed negotiation, the Secretary of State for the Environment has handed over 8% of the UK’s market for takeaway fish and chip suppers to Norwegian and Icelandic fishermen and has cut English fishermen out of the market entirely. I suspect that there will be Members on both sides of the House reflecting on how tragic it is that the Government could not keep even that small part of our national British dish.

The hon. Lady is trying to clearly outline the issue of extra quota coming to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I say to her gently, as I did beforehand, that it is more than the Kirkella and her constituency; the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation, the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation and the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association all wish to see extra quota coming to them as well. Does she agree that we should all benefit from this?

Absolutely—any quota that the British Government secure should be there to benefit everybody.

We have lost jobs, markets and investment. Those are the results in my constituency, and across the country, of the Government’s inability to land a deal with their neighbours. UK Fisheries and the Kirkella acquired the failing interests of the last of the UK’s distant water fleet two decades ago. It amalgamated those investments in Hull, made Hull the Kirkella’s home port and established its headquarters down the road near the Humber bridge. It invested more than £180 billion in the business, and until now was able to safeguard the livelihoods of hundreds of crew, staff and their families. Not only that, the Kirkella’s owners had earmarked another £100 million in future investment in the hope and expectation of new or better fishing opportunities, promised by the Government after Brexit, as the UK took its place on the international stage as an independent coastal state.

Now, as a direct consequence of these negotiations, there will be no new investment or new jobs in the Humber area. Worse, all the existing jobs will soon be gone. Again, the crew and their families across the Humber region have every right to ask why. This is why: because when push came to shove the Government failed to strike a single agreement with any of the friendly partner economies, despite the almost total reliance of those states on the UK as an export market for their main fisheries products—cod, haddock, salmon and prawns.

There is, of course, a human impact too. There is one Hull resident I would like to mention. His name is Charles Waddy, and he will not mind me saying that he is in his 60s or that he started working in Hull’s distant water fleet 47 years ago. Charlie’s dad was a fisherman too and, as any fisherman will tell us, it is more than a profession; it is a way of life that runs through generations. Charlie’s dad was lost at sea in 1961 along with four others when the Arctic Viking sank off Flamborough Head in heavy seas—brave men who gave their lives bringing home fish to feed the nation. Charlie was there during the cod wars, which marked the beginning of the decline of the distant water fleet. He devoted his life to distant water fishing, and today he is first mate on the Kirkella—a job with great responsibility, and that he loves.

However, Charlie Waddy has no idea whether he will still have a job in three months’ time. Nor do any of the other crew members who rely on the Kirkella and her continued ability to fish in sub-Arctic waters. UK Fisheries has just announced the sale of one of its boats to Greenland—Norma Mary—in order to keep Kirkella viable. That means that 25 UK crew are now without jobs. Those are not just abstract statistics; they are real people, real jobs and real families who are suffering now. These fishermen are part of the lifeblood of this great maritime nation of ours.

The Secretary of State might say, in fact he has said, that the owners of the Kirkella are foreign and therefore deserve no special treatment, but UK Fisheries is no more foreign than Jaguar Land Rover, Newcastle Brown Ale or Tetley Tea. The jobs and investment that it provides are of true economic benefit to the UK, and support hundreds of families in and around Hull and the broader north-east. All the fish that it catches are sold in British chippies. The crew are almost entirely British. They, and the company that employs them, pay their taxes here in the UK.

In short, UK Fisheries is the perfect example of the sort of inward investment that this country is seeking in its much trumpeted global Britain; yet the Secretary of State has hung it out to dry. As one of the first moves in the UK’s new trading relationship with the world, that sends entirely the wrong message to those considering investing foreign capital in our industries. It will send them looking for other more appreciative and more secure homes for their money.

The Secretary of State will say that in seeking deals with our neighbours, he is looking for the best balanced deal for the entire UK fleet. If the current situation is balanced, that is only because it is almost equally damaging to everybody. It is difficult to see how no deal with Norway, Greenland or the Faroes benefits any part of the UK fleet. It has removed the distant water fleet’s ability to catch off the coast of Norway and has prevented Scottish and English whitefish fleets from catching in southern Norway. Perhaps the Secretary of State will tell the House exactly which part of the UK fleet gains from no deal and how, on balance, that is a good deal for the rest of the fleet.

The Minister may say that the mackerel and herring that the Norwegians have until recently caught in our waters is a valuable resource to the Scottish fleet. She may be right, but that fleet is already the biggest, and perhaps only, winner from Brexit and makes up only a modest part of the UK fleet as a whole. Does she understand that the mackerel and herring that the Norwegians would like to continue catching in UK waters form part of their own North sea quotas and that they will simply catch them as younger stock in their own waters? That will not only be less sustainable for the whole North sea stock, but damage the UK’s share of that stock. Where is she getting her advice?

The Secretary of State or the Minister may also say that there is still some cod to be caught off Svalbard. That may be true, but it amounts to just 5,500 tonnes, about a third of what the UK would be entitled to catch in Norwegian waters alone if it had not left the EU. Combined with the UK’s total Arctic cod catches from Svalbard in the Norwegian zone, that would have been approximately 20,000 tonnes. Five thousand tonnes will not provide long-term employment for anyone in the Humber region. They might say that that is just fine, because next year there will be different negotiations—but those negotiations start in earnest in only three or four months’ time, as the Minister told me in a meeting this week. What will she do next year that she did not do this year? What assurances does she have for Charlie Waddy and his shipmates that next year will be any different?

The Government’s track record in the area is far from encouraging. They made grand promises to the UK fishing industry, but I am sad to say that they have reneged on them both: they have failed the entire UK fleet in negotiations with the EU and are now set to preside over the end of our distant water fleet. It is a sorry state of affairs when the fleet that once fed this country through two world wars is finally sunk—not by enemy action, but by the decision, or perhaps indecision, of this Government. If the Secretary of State is not on the side of the fishermen who put their trust in him, whose side is he on? Right now, no reasonable person could say that it is the fishermen’s.

I make this plea to the Minister and the Secretary of State on behalf of my constituents. Will the Secretary of State personally reach out to his opposite number in Norway tomorrow to look for ways to strike a deal as soon as humanly possible, so that people like Charles Waddy can be confident that they will have a job in three months’ time and so that much-needed investment will find its way to Hull—or will he continue to sit back and watch this once proud industry slip below the water for good?

Karl Turner has sought and received from the mover of the debate, Emma Hardy, and from the Minister responding, Victoria Prentis, permission to make a short contribution. I have been informed, as per the rules.

I do not intend to detain the House for very long. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) for securing this incredibly important debate, and to the Minister for indicating to me that she is content for me to take a little of her time.

We have a proud history in Hull and a proud heritage of fishing, but historically it was dangerous work. It would be wrong of me not to briefly mention Big Lil Bilocca, because if she were here, she would have something to say to the Minister. It is true that, following the triple trawler disaster and tragedy, Big Lil campaigned with men and women in Hull to improve the safety standards of fishermen at sea, and also the terms and conditions of those hard-working men. She campaigned with my predecessor, Lord Prescott. The people of Hull are very proud of Big Lil.

It is true that the industry has been in decline for decades, but the Kirkella provided a safe fishing future so that lads and lasses in schools in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend could plan a fishing career where they would earn a good living and have proud employment. They have been let down by this Government.

This is not about leave versus remain or left versus right; it is about what is right and what is wrong. We are not arguing about fishing rights that we got as members of the European Union. The fishing rights we are talking about are those that we had long before we joined the European Union in 1974, so it is simply not good enough, Minister, to say to me and my hon. Friend, “Listen, don’t worry, we are doing the preparation now for the negotiations to start next year.” We need to get a grip now. We need to take back control. That is what we need to do, and if we cannot get the answer we need for those men and women—those 100 crew members —we need to be speaking to the Treasury about compensation. Get a grip.

I congratulate both representatives from Hull on securing this debate on such an important issue. It was good to meet them earlier in the week and earlier today, and I look forward to continuing our conversations over the months ahead. They both represent areas with a proud fishing history, as indeed do the other Members present in the House this evening.

I understand that this is a difficult time for the Kirkella, her crew, UK fisheries and, indeed, parts of the wider industry. I want to take this opportunity to set out the background to the recent fisheries negotiations and why the UK and Norway have been unable to conclude bilateral fisheries agreements so far this year.

I will make a bit more progress, I think.

When the UK was a member of the EU, UK vessels were able to fish in Greenlandic, Norwegian and Faroese waters because of agreements that the EU had in place. Those agreements, however, caused fundamental difficulties for the UK. It was interesting that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) said that this is not about left and right or Brexit and remain. I agree: it is about fairness.

The agreements that were in place when we were an EU member meant that in 2019, for example, the value of the fish that Norway landed from UK waters was approximately eight times higher than that of the fish that we landed from Norwegian waters. We gained £30 million-worth, and it gained £250 million-worth. That gives hon. Members some idea of the difference. About 197 Norwegian vessels fished in our waters, compared with about 50 of our vessels fishing in its waters. Similarly, Faroese catches in UK waters were worth about 21 times the value of those caught by UK vessels in Faroese waters.

With those deals, there was an effective deficit to the UK of £218 million with respect to Norway and £24 million with respect to the Faroe Islands. That was because we were a member of the EU. We were not an independent coastal state and we could do nothing about that. I suspect that the House agrees that such arrangements are not in the best interests of the UK in the long term. As an independent coastal state, our fisheries relationships in the north-east Atlantic must change, and we must move away from this highly unbalanced position.

Does the Minister agree that, as an independent coastal state, the UK is right to seek redress for the years of imbalance in fishing agreements negotiated by the EU, which in the case of Norway has resulted in eight times as much seafood being harvested by Norwegian vessels operating in UK waters than vice versa?

I do agree, and indeed am trying to explain how very imbalanced the relationship has been in recent years.

It is, of course, challenging for our neighbours as we seek to make those adjustments and to strike the right balance in our relationships with our fellow coastal states. We started annual negotiations with Norway in January. We met with the Norwegians extensively and put several offers on the table. As I have set out, the priority for us was to rebalance the relationship. We are not willing to give valuable access to our waters for free.

During our fisheries negotiations, it is important—I see in the Chamber Members from Scotland and from Northern Ireland, and from other parts of the UK—that we represent the whole UK. We must also focus on long-term strategic outcomes, not just those for this year. A deal acceptable to Norway that retained some of the imbalance would not be in our national interest, and a similar dynamic developed in our negotiations with the Faroese.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) mentioned that we do not have an agreement in place with Greenland. The EU pays money, not quota, for access to Greenland’s waters. It pays about €16.5 million a year, in money. There might well be opportunities to agree for UK vessels quota and access sharing agreements with Greenland, but the House must understand that there is difficulty in replicating the arrangements the EU has with Greenland. That would doubtless involve a direct payment of taxpayers’ money, which would benefit private companies that catch the quota. I do not see us wanting to go down that route.

It is important to make it clear to the House that the Kirkella still has access to significant fishing quota in Norwegian waters around Svalbard.

No, I will make progress if I may.

In a separate arrangement with the Norwegian authorities, the UK received access to fish 5,500 tonnes of cod in the Svalbard area, as the hon. Lady said. That is not to be sniffed at. It is worth approximately £12.6 million to UK fisheries, which will fish that quota. I understand that the Kirkella has apparently used half that quota to date and has about half left to fish, as well as the majority of its quota in UK waters. I appreciate that that is less than it has had in previous years—I do appreciate that, and I am not in any way seeking to downplay it—but those are substantial fishing opportunities none the less.

No, I will carry on if I may.

Let me answer the hon. Lady. The Secretary of State has written this week to his Norwegian counterpart, expressing a desire to continue to work closely with Norway this year and looking forward to the formal start of the negotiations for 2022 in September, as soon as the science, which is so important, becomes available.

I should also make clear, as perhaps I have not done so, the fact that we have never taken our offer for this year off the table. Our offer to Norway remains on the table and our door is completely open if the Norwegians wish to begin to negotiate with us again, but I re-emphasise that that must be based on fairness in the future. We look forward to restarting the cycle of negotiations. As hon. Members know, the preliminaries have started. We await the science, then negotiations will start formally in September.

The Government recognise the need to support the fishing sector generally to transition and prepare for a new long-term future. I am pleased that we have gone well beyond our manifesto commitment, and the Prime Minister has announced that £100 million will be invested across the UK for transformative seafood projects. The projects will rejuvenate the industry—and, I hope, our coastal communities—through training and qualifications, infrastructure projects and the development and roll-out of science and innovation across the supply chain.

I am sure the Minister will recall the conversation we had earlier in the week about workforce retention. As I mentioned in my speech, we have already lost 25 British crew members in the fisheries industry because of the failure to secure that deal. I also mentioned my constituent Charlie Waddy, who might not continue as a first mate if the Kirkella is unable to continue to fish to the level it did before. There is not much point in preparing a workforce for an industry that is in decline if the support is not there any more. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) asked, what compensation will be given to those fishermen and women to secure them in work until a new deal is negotiated?

I do not share the hon. Lady’s analysis of the future of the UK’s fishing industry. We believe that there is a bright and sustainable future for the industry.

Turning, if I may, to the impact on jobs, I recognise that seafood processing in particular has huge regional significance and that it makes a really important contribution to Grimsby. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici), whom I met yesterday to discuss this with, reminds me of that very regularly indeed. The gross value added is almost £300 million, and there is a turnover for processing of over £1 billion in most years from 2018 onwards. The area accounts for over 30% of seafood processing jobs in the UK.

Is the Minister suggesting that those fishermen and women should transfer to doing factory work onshore? Is that the alternative the Minister is offering?

I do not recognise the picture of the jobs situation that has been painted by the two representatives from Hull. I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s figures. I have been briefed that all the crew are self-employed share fishermen. We think that about 30 to 34 crew are being employed on the Kirkella. As I said earlier, there are still significant fishing opportunities for the Kirkella this year in Svalbard, and we will continue to work hard to make a deal for fishing opportunities next year.

Moving to another point that the hon. Lady raised, the majority of raw materials used in processing in Humberside are sourced from imports, as they long have been. We are seeing significant investment in the seafood sector in the region. Young’s, for example, is currently running a recruitment campaign for 400 people, which is a great indicator of how the hub in the region is doing. I am not suggesting that every crew person transfers into processing jobs; I am merely trying to explain that there are good jobs in the seafood sector in the region, and that we are really pleased to support those where we can.

On a good news note, we have noticed a significant uplift in retail sales of seafood recently. The Government are working closely with bodies such as Seafish to ensure that the British public continue to develop their appetite for British fish. I want to see continued growth in this industry and more fantastic UK seafood being enjoyed by the British public.

This has been a period of considerable change for the fishing world and the wider sector, including for processes and hospitality. In its response to the covid pandemic, the sector has demonstrated again and again how resilient and adaptable it can be. Adjusting to our position as an independent coastal state is also challenging, but I am confident that, as we continue to work with other neighbouring coastal states, there is a bright and environmentally sustainable future for British fishing.

Before I put the question, let me thank all staff of the House for the incredible work that they have put in. I hope that they have an enjoyable May week’s recess.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.