IJMUIDEN, NETHERLANDS (AFP) – Fishermen in the Dutch port of IJmuiden are bringing home the last catch of the year, but if Brexit talks fail it could be their last from British waters for years to come.
As dock workers offload pallets of frozen fish from trawlers at the busy river mouth port just west of Amsterdam, a political storm is brewing that could sink their business.
The highly-charged issue of fishing rights threatens to torpedo hopes of a trade deal when the United Kingdom (UK) leaves the European Union (EU) single market on January 1.
Without a deal the Dutch will be unable to ply the British waters they have been using for centuries.
“Whether we will fish purely in European waters or British waters as well remains to be seen,” said director at the fifth-generation Cornelis Vrolijk fishing company Arnout Langerak, 47.
“Dutch people, Dutch fishermen have been fishing there for 400 years already or even longer. We would like to do that in the next 400 years,” he told AFP on Friday.
While commercial fishing makes up a relatively small chunk of the economies of coastal nations like Britain, France and the Netherlands, it has an outsize political importance.
The fate of under-threat fishing communities like IJmuiden goes to the heart of ideas of national sovereignty and identity – and of trade.
In IJmuiden, truck after truck is being stacked with pallets of frozen fish from the trawlers, which are landing their final catch of 2020.
Many of the ships will leave the port after the festive season to trawl for what will become the first catch of the new year, but under uncertain terms.
The Dutch fishing industry, including the processing and trade of fish, prawns and shellfish has a yearly turnover of around EUR4.5 billion (USD5.5 billion).
It provides jobs for as many as 7,000 people and is represented by some 216 companies in the Netherlands, according to figures by the Dutch umbrella fishing federation the Visfederatie.
At the nearby Cornelis Vrolijk plant, teams of workers were gutting and cleaning a constant stream of herring, to be packed for eating by Belgian, Dutch and German consumers.
One major frustration for the Dutch – who love nothing more than dropping a raw herring fillet down their throats – is that the British don’t eat many of the fish that are in their own waters.
“The Brits, they eat mainly fish and chips, no herring, no mackerel, what we are used to eating. They are eating cod,” said Langerak.
“It’s typical that they want more of the quota that they are not consuming themselves.”
The fishermen are in no doubt about the impact of a no-deal.
“Dutch freezer trawlers fish 70 per cent of their catch in British waters,” said President of the Dutch-based European Pelagic Freezer-trawler Association Gerard van Balsfoort, 68.
“A no deal means no access. That means we lose 70 per cent of our turnover for these (Dutch) companies. That is devastating.”
Pelagic freezer trawlers catch fish living near the surface of the sea such as herring, mackerel, and sardines, then freeze them to keep them fresh until they get back to port.
Britain is adamant that it will decide who gets to fish it in its waters after January 1, but Brussels wants to secure a long-term agreement guaranteeing access for EU boats.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier said on Friday there were “just a few hours” to overcome divisions with Britain, and confirmed fishing remains the slipperiest issue.
In ports like IJmuiden where generation after generation has relied on the trade, feelings are running high, but the Dutch said they want a fair deal.
“Dutch fishermen used to fish in British waters for generations, for centuries, so they don’t want to stop doing that,” said Van Balsfoort.
“What they want is continued access to British fishing waters.”
“So access to UK markets is crucial for EU fishermen and access to the EU market is vital for British fishermen.”
“This is the Brexit deal on fisheries to be made,” he said.