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Thanet Fishermen's Association chairman says fisheries Brexit agreement could transform industry for Kent


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A lifelong fisherman from Kent believes an agreement between the UK and the European Union could breathe fresh life into the county's floundering fishing industry.

John Nichols, chairman of the Thanet Fisherman's Association, has spent most of his life out on the choppy waters of the English coast.

John Nichols hopes the UK can gain control of its waters from the EU

Now retired from the skipper life and a spokesperson for the fishermen making their living along Kent's south east coast, Mr Nichols wants to see Britain retain control of its waters at the end of the Brexit transition period in January.

He said: "We're still waiting to hear and we're hoping for a brighter future - it seems to be that the government are holding out for reclaiming our waters, then possibly giving access to foreign vessels under our terms and our conditions.

"If it remains the same, then the fishing industry of the UK will take another step backwards, especially the inshore industry, because we rely on getting additional quota back so that our boats can go to see with a brighter future."

EU fishing quotas are guidelines which limit how many fish can be caught and the share amongst fishermen from each country.

Mr Nichols speaks for fishermen operating out of Whitstable harbour, as well as Ramsgate and Queenborough
Mr Nichols speaks for fishermen operating out of Whitstable harbour, as well as Ramsgate and Queenborough

Under the Common Fisheries Policy the UK agreed to an equal access agreement, allowing EU vessels to fish in its waters providing UK skippers could do the same in EU waters.

But when the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, many in the fishing industry expected this agreement to end along with the rest of the European Union agreements.

This has been one of the sole sticking points in the Brexit negotiations, leaving British and EU diplomats at loggerheads.

Many had been critical of the agreement prior to the UK voting to leave the EU, in part because the UK has a large fishing zone relative to some EU member states, so some believe EU fishermen have benefitted more from access to the UK's waters than vice versa.

Mr Nichols is among those who think freeing the quota could be the key to rescuing declining industries along the coast.

The fishing industry largely campaigned to leave the EU due to the fishing quota. Picture: Chris Davey
The fishing industry largely campaigned to leave the EU due to the fishing quota. Picture: Chris Davey

At present, around 50% of the small fishing boats moored at Ramsgate go out to sea with a crew of one - a situation which could prove fatal for a lonely skipper.

Mr Nichols said: "It's totally unacceptable, totally dangerous, it should never been allowed but it's allowed because there isn't enough quota to give them to earn enough money to afford to pay another crew.

"So we get the quota back, we get more more opportunities therefore we can afford to pay more crews, and the boats can be properly manned again."

He added: "We would get back so much fish that the UK fishing fleet as it stood at the moment, couldn't catch what would be available to us, it would be impossible to catch that amount of fish with the fleet that we've got.

"It would be a fantastic future, but it would probably take 10 to 20 years to actually build the fleets back to full capacity in order to catch that quota."

Ramsgate harbour (42333067)
Ramsgate harbour (42333067)

According to Mr Nichols, the county's small fishing vessels make up just 3% of the UK's, with around 3,000 small boats travelling across the waters to farm the sea.

But with UK waters back in the country's control and reinvestment by the government, he believes Kent's coastal fishing industry could be a vital part of the future.

He said: "Our fleet is an ageing fleet with ageing crew - the average age of crew in the Kent area is probably late 40s early 50s now.

"We need an injection of youth, and opportunities through additional quota, then an opportunity through the banks to be able to borrow money so we can reinvest in the industry - it's expensive to buy a boat, buy the license and get into the industry.

"Fishermen are the last of the hunters - there's a fantastic opportunity not only for the fishing industry, but for other offshore development should we take back control of our waters, so let's hope the Prime Minister and the other ministers who represent us are strong enough to hold onto that."

Image taken from Alan Taylor's Folkestone's Fishing Industry Past & Present, which reveals some of the county's fishing heritage
Image taken from Alan Taylor's Folkestone's Fishing Industry Past & Present, which reveals some of the county's fishing heritage

It comes as Boris Johnson prepares to fly to Brussels in the hopes of a breakthrough in agreeing a post-Brexit trade deal.

The Prime Minister and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen will meet this evening to discuss key issues like fishing and competition rules, which are still the subject of controversy between EU nations and the UK.

France's Emmanuel Macron has maintained a hard line on fishing, with his country set to go to the polls in 2022.

Regions including Brittany and Normandy – key fishing areas – are said to be vital in the race for the presidency.

Similarly, on the UK side, an independent fisheries policy is seen as part of “taking back control”, with then fisheries minister George Eustice saying in January: “For many people in coastal communities, leaving the Common Fisheries Policy is at the heart of getting Brexit done.”

Read more: All the latest news from Thanet

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