Before dawn, the fish market in Brixham stirs into life as the shining silver catch from local fishing boats is unloaded, sorted, graded and auctioned off to food suppliers and restaurants.
This coastal town in south Devon can trace its fishing history back as far as the 14th century and today, thanks to Brexit, is at the centre of a modern political drama.
The UK fisheries industry is one of the reasons why London and Brussels are stumbling over a trade agreement, although business in Brixham is unaffected so far. Its fish market has just enjoyed a run of million-pound weeks, where sales in the online auction of cuttlefish, scallops and more than 40 types of fish have regularly reached seven figures.
Standing in one of two chilly sale halls where seafood is inspected and sold, Kevin Dale of Brixham Trawler Agents, which manages the market says: “The other day we had 30,000 dover sole.”
Brixham has become England’s largest market by value of fish sold, and the EU is its largest customer. Over 70% of Brixham’s catch is exported to France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain.
However, EU boats use British fishing waters too and they want to continue doing so after 31 December. This sticking point is one of the reasons for Boris Johnson’s claim last Friday that the country would have to prepare for a no-deal scenario if Brussels did not change its general negotiating stance.
The economic size of the UK fishing industry is dwarfed by its symbolic importance. According to official data, the seafood sector, which includes fishing, aquaculture and processing, represents 0.1% of the UK economy, a contribution of £1.4bn in 2018. But for Brixham and other coastal communities around the UK it is vital.
“Brixham is a special place,” says Josh Perkes, owner of Brixham Seafish, who is overseeing a team of rubber-booted workers preparing boxes of hake and gurnards bought at that morning’s market and destined for city restaurants. Perkes is the sixth generation of his family to make a living from the bountiful waters off Brixham, and says fishing is “everything” to the town. “There are two trades here: fishing and tourism.”
For this coastal community – and a scattering of others around UK shores, from Peterhead on Scotland’s north-east coast to Newlyn on Cornwall’s southern tip – fishing is a cornerstone.
The industry is undeniably shrinking, however. It employed around 8,000 people in June 2020, not counting the self-employed, which is less than half the number recorded in June 1978, five years after Britain joined the EU.
And many in the fishing industry blame EU membership for this decline, believing Britain got a bad deal when it entered the bloc in the 1970s. Fishing quotas, the common fisheries policy (CFP) and access to British waters for foreign boats have long been contentious.
Securing more control of the fish in British and shared waters was a key promise of the 2016 Brexit campaign. EU-based fleets catch up to eight times as many fish in UK waters as British fishermen do in EU waters, according to UK government data.
Once Britain no longer has to follow EU rules, after 31 December, fishermen want Britain to become an “independent coastal state”. This would replicate the status of Norway, and would mean the UK could control its own waters, and hold annual talks on access to UK and EU waters to ensure stocks are protected and prevent overfishing.
However, the sheer quantity of fish in UK waters has made this very unpopular with certain EU member states, which have a lot to lose. These include France, Belgium and Denmark, whose boats have for centuries fished in the same waters as UK boats. So the Brexit talks are being closely watched in Brixham, even by those who no longer make a living from the sea.
“I was hoping we’d walk away today,” says retired fisherman Andy Ricks. “If Boris Johnson gives fishing away, I’ll never vote for him again”.
Ricks says quotas – a thicket of regulations divvying up catches by size, location and type of fish – were the reason he had to quit fishing and sell his boat in the mid-1990s. He hopes Britain’s departure from the EU, with a trade deal or without, will “benefit the next generation”. “If the money was good, more young people would want to get into it,” he says.
Others are more circumspect about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the wider economy.
“Not securing a deal will add yet more hardship to vitally important sectors, not least manufacturing and construction,” says Darren Jones MP, the Labour chair of parliament’s business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) committee. “If ministers really are committed to protecting jobs in the UK, they need to get a deal over the line.”
Although many in Brixham are firmly in favour of Brexit, the uncertainty is a concern for the fish market’s operators.
“It’s frightening for us,” says Dale at Brixham Trawler Agents, which is busy trying to work out how seafood sales to the continent will continue after Brexit. “We’ve had information but it’s not clear. We don’t know what’s needed and it’s just a few months away.”
But many in the fishing industry see Britain’s departure from the EU as a chance for a fresh start.
“Our aspiration is, as an independent coastal state, to be put on track to regenerate at least some coastal communities, and the fundamental building block is fishing opportunities,” says Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO).
But he warns that additional fishing quotas within sovereign waters would not necessarily lead to an expansion of the UK fishing industry.
“We should see what our fishing opportunities are, if there is scope to relax the licensing laws, and build new boats. We should do it very cautiously.”
Across Brixham harbour, on King’s Quay, stands a bronze sculpture called Man and Boy, portraying two lifesize figures standing at a ship’s wheel. If future generations in Brixham are to maintain the town’s fishing tradition, Brexit needs to fulfil its promise.