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Cornwall This Fishing Life BBC Series

Cornwall: This Fishing Life

Follow the fortunes of Cornish fishermen, fighting to secure a future for their traditional way of life.

About the programme

For generations, fishermen of Cornwall have worked some of the world’s richest fishing grounds. As Britain prepares to go it alone, what does the future hold for this fishing life?

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

Father and son on a fishing boat, in BBS series This Fishing Life

Copyright: Frank Films

Fishing boat on Hastings beach

What the Brexit deal means for the Cornish fishing industry

Brexit and fishing have two big topics over the past few years. Dr Vicky Johnson looks at what happens now that Brexit has finally happened. 

It appears that fishing almost sank the Brexit trade deal. But a trade deal was agreed, right at the eleventh hour, after months of negotiation. Fishing was always high on the agenda, as it had been for the ‘leave’ campaigners prior to the referendum in 2016. Not only was the fishing deal a Manifesto pledge, but it was also a key Government objective for Brexit*. Across the UK, and very much so in Cornwall, fishing represented the Brexit symbolism relating to sovereignty.


A map showing a tear between the United Kingdom and the EU

Broken Europe - Image by Christoph Scholz under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

When it came to the negotiations the importance of fishing wasn’t just true for the UK, the EU also placed significant focus on what they wanted in terms of fishing. Frustration in the UK was long held, with Cornish fishermen feeling they had suffered from a raw deal since the 1970s. There was a clear perception that the UK government had agreed to less advantageous terms than those achieved by the governments of other EU countries. And, entering with less favourable terms had made it more difficult to change them to a much more positive position.

It was clear both before and after the referendum that a better deal for the UK fishing industry was promised as an important element. The fishing community saw this as essential to correct the inequalities of the historical agreement. And so, fishing has clearly been promoted as a key symbol of the new world of fairness regarding post Brexit sovereignty. Although compared to other areas of the deal negotiated the size of the fishing industry mustn’t be overestimated. In 2019, UK vessels landed sea fish with a value of £987 million**, although it must be remembered that this isn’t the full picture as the processing sector is also substantial.

Throughout the negotiations the EU and UK demands were some way apart and this led to the late agreement as part of the deal. But a deal was reached. Although the details of the deal aren’t popular amongst those in the fishing industry. For example, Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO), claims that the fishing industry was “sacrificed” to enable other elements of the deal to be agreed. The NFFO highlighted disappointment as they felt promises had not been met.

So, what was the deal in the end?

Fishing boats in Mevagissey harbour, UK

Fishing boats in Mevagissey, UK

Well, EU boats remain allowed to fish in UK waters during the transition period. As before the deal they can fish up to the six nautical mile limit, even though the UK boundary is twelve nautical miles out to sea. 

UK boats have been granted a greater share of the quota, so this means more fish can be caught and sold by British boats. The quota available for EU fishing vessels is being cut by a quarter over the next five to six years. After this period there will be annual negotiations regarding fisheries. The format of these is not yet clear.

For Cornish fishermen this will, over the next few years see them having access to a greater share of the quota. In addition, the Prime Minister has promised an investment of £100 million in the British fishing industry, enabling further support.

Fishing boat at Portree, Scotland

Stormy waters: Scotland, the UK and the politics of fishing

Four of the top five UK ports for landed weight are in Scotland. Is there a possibility of an independent Scotland opting to become an EU member re-joining the EUs Common Fisheries Policy?

The UK’s fishing industry has been long in decline, certainly a process predating EU membership. The outcome of the Cod Wars was a deal with Iceland that hit some of the major fishing communities hard. While the industry is now only a shadow of its former self, nonetheless in an island country such as the UK, fishing has long had an emotive and symbolic presence, and this has continued. 

The decline of the industry over the past half century or so has also led to a shift in the importance of different fishing ports in different parts of the UK. In 2019, in terms of fish landings, the top 4 ports are in Scotland, with 9 Scottish ports in the top 20.

Scottish ports in the UK top 20 by landed weight

Four of the top five UK ports for landed weight are in Scotland. Peterhead lands over ten times the weight of Brixham, the largest English port.

Four of the top five UK ports for landed weight are in Scotland. Peterhead lands over ten times the weight of Brixham, the largest English port.

In descending order of catch, the Scottish locations are:

  • Peterhead
  • Lerwick (pictured above)
  • Fraserburgh
  • Scrabster
  • Ullapool
  • Kinlochbervie
  • Scalloway and Isles
  • Cullivoe
  • Mallaig.

The relative importance of Scottish fishing ports raises a number of thorny and contentious issues, which are likely to unfold and become more significant in the post-Brexit era.

The response of the Scottish National Party-led Scottish Government to the threat of Royal Navy vessels being used to patrol UK waters was to deem such an idea as, to quote SNP Europe Secretary, Mike Russell, ‘utterly insane’, commenting that ‘We have a very competent force that is in place, but we do not call upon the navy to do these matters, and any military intervention in Scotland in civil matters would require the consent of the Chief Constable (of Police Scotland) ’.

SNP Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, also commented that: "UK Government gunboat diplomacy is not welcome in Scottish waters . We will protect our fisheries, but we won't do that by threatening our NATO allies, our friends and neighbours."

He later tweeted: "62 percent of UK EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) is in Scotland. Police Scot and Marine Scot will protect fisheries if necessary, chief constable has primacy. UK Government has confirmed with me Royal Navy will not be deployed unless chief constable requests."

Not surprisingly, the unionist press and several Conservative opposition politicians in Scotland were also quick to criticise the views of the Scottish Government as overstepping the mark and to remind the SNP that the waters off the coasts of Scotland are UK waters.

Despite the claims made by these Scottish Government Ministers, on January 1, 2021 a vessel, apparently, though not confirmed as a Scottish patrol boat, stopped an Irish registered trawler from fishing within 12 miles of the disputed Rockall fishing grounds in the Atlantic.

Newspaper headlines from the Scottish-Independence supporting The National (pictured below), and the pro-UK and strongly unionist Express, have reflected the major fault-line that characterises not only Scottish politics, but a fracture which has the potential to tear the UK apart, at least the UK in the shape and form that it is in 2021. That the Scottish Government was quick to respond to the announcement that the Royal Navy would be ready to patrol UK waters reflects this tension, though it is difficult to see how the Scottish Government could prevent naval vessels from plying the seas off the coast of Scotland.

Tangled fishing nets

The SNP is strongly opposed to the presence of nuclear weapons on the west coast of Scotland, with Royal Navy submarines a regular presence on the Firth of Clyde, and it would not be difficult to argue that it has as much chance of stopping the submarines from sailing off the west coast as it has in stopping Royal Navy patrol vessels policing UK waters off of other Scottish coasts. Not surprisingly, the unionist press and several Conservative opposition politicians in Scotland were also quick to criticise the views of the Scottish Government as overstepping the mark and to remind the SNP that the waters off the coasts of Scotland are UK waters.

The more fundamental point of contention surrounds the demands of the SNP that Scottish Government Ministers are given a say in any international fishing negotiations following Brexit. Behind this lies the possibility of an independent Scotland opting that became an EU member re-joining the EUs Common Fisheries Policy which, for Scottish Conservatives, further erode the position of Scotland’s fishing industry, as well as potentially deny access to the rich seas off Scotland to boats from the remainder of the UK.

For Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross MP, whose Moray seat contains a number of important fishing communities said: "The SNP's rhetoric on fishing is pathetic. Despite all their empty words, the fact is they want to take Scotland back into the hated Common Fisheries Policy . They would rather bow down to Brussels than hand power back to fishermen and communities across Scotland. The UK is becoming an independent coastal state and taking back control of our waters, while the SNP are desperate to sell out our fishermen at the first chance they get".


American lobsters

Fishing the aliens in our waters

Could non-native invasive species make UK coastal fisheries more sustainable? Dr Shonil Bhagwat digs deeper to take a look.

A photo of an American comb jelly (Mnemiopsis leidyi)

American comb jelly (Mnemiopsis leidyi) - Image by Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on Wikimedia under Creative-Commons license

Non-native (or alien) invasive species are seen as one of the greatest threats facing coastal fisheries in the UK. Marine invasive species are estimated to have a direct cost of approximately £40 million per year to marine industries in the UK (Williams et al. 2010 ). These costs include the money spent on controlling invasive species by preventing them from entering coastal and marine ecosystems or removing them once they have entered. There are additional opportunity costs incurred by local fishers when removing or disposing of invasive species from fish catches. These are not accounted for in the direct costs and may be even higher than £40 million per year. For an industry that overwhelmingly consists of small-scale fishers this constitutes a massive burden.

Great Britain Non-Native Species Secretariat  is actively involved in assessing the risk of invasive species to marine industries, educating the fishing communities about these species, and putting in place measures to prevent, control or eradicate them. Despite these measures, invasive species continue to threaten biodiversity including that of marine ecosystems (Roy et al. 2014 ). Of the top 30 most invasive species in Great Britain, eight are marine. These include: Asian shore crab (Hemigrapsus sanguineus), brush-clawed shore crab (Hemigrapsus takanoi), American lobster (Homarus americanus - pictured above at the top of the page), American comb jelly (Mnemiopsis leidyi - pictured below), veined rapa whelk (Rapana venosa), cauliflower sponge (Celtodoryx ciocalyptoides), Japanese sting winkle (Ocenebra inornata), and rough agar weed (Gracilaria vermiculophylla).

Veined Rapa Whelk

Some invasive species have already ben adopted in new cuisines in countries where they have invaded. Slipper limpet (Crepidule fornicata), a native of Atlantic Coast in North America, is considered an invasive species in Europe.

These species have a range of negative impacts on the marine environments and on the fishing industry which is highly dependent on these environments. Asian shore crab and brush-clawed shore crab both out-compete and displace native crab species such as the shore crab, Carcinus maenas (Dauvin et al., 2009, Dauvin & Delhay, 2010). American lobsters are often released into the coastal waters following purchase from restaurants. They can carry a bacterial disease, gaffkaemia, lethal to other lobsters. Parts of the North American lobster fishery have had to be closed as a result of this disease and its impact on European lobster populations and fisheries could be equally severe (Stebbing et al., 2012).

American comb jelly is a voracious predator of zooplankton including fish larvae and eggs (Faasse & Bayha, 2006). This species has been responsible for serious impacts in the Black Sea including a sharp reduction in Dolphin numbers because of a rapidly declining fish. The decline in abundance of zooplankton and fish is also known to have led to the near collapse of commercial fisheries in the Caspian Sea (Finenko et al., 2006). American comb jelly could have similar effects in the coastal waters of the UK. Veined Rapa Whelk is a large predatory gastropod and consumes a range of ecologically and commercially important invertebrates (ICES, 2004).

Cauliflower sponge is a suspension feeder growing into very extensive patches. It often grows on Eunicella verrucosa (a slow growing, fragile, habitat forming species) posing threat to coastal and marine habitats (Henkel & Janussen, 2011). Japanese sting winkle is a predator of bivalves. It is considered a serious threat to oysters in France and could pose a similar threat to oysters in the UK (Lützen et al., 2011). Rough agar weed can have a negative impact on Fucus vesiculosus (a key intertidal algal species) populations and other native algae. This species is able to grow rapidly, colonises large areas, and is highly salt tolerant (Nejrup et al., 2012).

Kuruma prawn (Marsupenaeus japonicas) - Image by Daderot on Wikipedia under Creative-Commons license

But could some of these species be useful to the fishing industry? Many of these species commonly appear in the bycatch and simply have to be discarded. However, there are innovative examples where some species have been used for food. Bun Lai, owner of Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, USA  is one of the few chefs in the world who only serve invasive species. He has come up with some new recipes made from Asian shore crab, a species that is considered invasive on the East coast of the US. The recipes include ‘Asian Crab Popcorn’, ‘Sawagani on Grilled Pineapple Salsa with Tabasco’ and ‘Asian Shore Crabs in Coconut Milk, Filipino style’ .

American lobster is a delicacy in North America and is prepared in a variety of different ways to serve as food. It is even considered a “crown jewel” of the seafood industry  on Prince Edward Island Province on the East coast of Canada. Veined Rapa Whelk is a species that has culinary uses along the Black Sea coast where it is considered invasive. Although these whelks are not easy to cook, they can be prepared in different ways. Romanian recipes of this species include ‘Rapane in Butter and Wine Sauce’ or ‘Rapane with vegetables’ .

Many other species that are considered invasive in the UK waters, and are commonly found in the bycatch by small-scale fishers (Gray 2018 ), have culinary value that can be exploited. In particular, those species already popular in local cuisines in their homeland have the potential for stimulating a new culinary culture. Wakame seaweed or Japanese kelp (Undaria pinnatifida) is commonly used in Japanese cuisine . Similarly, American oyster drill  (Urosalpinx cinera) is a delicacy along the gulf coast of Texas. Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis) is a delicacy in China  while Kuruma prawn (Marsupenaeus japonicas - pictured below) is a delicacy in Japanese Edo-style sushi . All these invasive species in UK waters can potentially be consumed as food.

Meet the experts...

Dr Vicky Johnson
Dr Vicky JohnsonStaff Tutor - GeographyVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Vicky Johnson
Dr Vicky JohnsonStaff Tutor - Geography

My teaching and research focuses on elements of environmental study. This includes the value of elements to the environment, such as sea-water quality, and how society reacts both to the generation of these values and their uses. 

I lead the economics line of study across different OU modules of study in relation to the environment. Recently my research has focused on Covid impacts upon the environment, particularly thinking about how recovery expenditure may, or may not, be described as the UKs Green a New Deal. 

Professor Shonil Bhagwat, The Open University
Professor Shonil BhagwatProfessor of Environment and DevelopmentVIEW FULL PROFILE
Professor Shonil Bhagwat, The Open University
Professor Shonil BhagwatProfessor of Environment and Development

My research interests sit at the cross-section between natural and social sciences and my research centres on the links between environment and development. In particular, my research engages critically with discussions on a variety of key environmental concerns: agriculture and food security, biodiversity conservation, climate change, ecosystem services, and sustainability. It addresses these perceived grand environmental challenges within the context of growing discussion on the Anthropocene, the age of humans.

A picture of Professor David Humphreys
Professor David HumphreysProfessor of Environmental PolicyVIEW FULL PROFILE
A picture of Professor David Humphreys
Professor David HumphreysProfessor of Environmental Policy

David has a long-standing interest in environmental policy and environmental politics, with a particular interest in international forest policy. Having tracked the evolution of all international forest policy initiatives over the last 25 years, both within and outside the United Nations, he has written two books on this subject, Forest Politics: The Evolution of International Cooperation (1996) and Logjam: Deforestation and the Crisis of Global Governance (2006), the latter of which won the International Studies Association’s Sprout Award for the best book of the year on international environmental problems.  

David is an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. In 2017 he was made a National Teaching Fellow by the Higher Education Academy.

Find out more about Professor David Humphreys

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