Grimsby far from EU ideal as locals fixate on cod war losses

Despite Humberside town’s shift to processing of fish, the locals see Brexit as desirable


The sound of seagulls drifts through the air in the quiet coastal town of Grimsby.

Perched on the southern bank of the Humber peninsula looking out on to the icy North Sea, Grimsby is one of Britain’s oldest fishing ports. Settled by the Vikings in the ninth century, it rapidly developed into an important trading town during the middle ages. The town boomed during Britain’s industrial heyday in the 19th century, where it served as an export hub for the masses of coal being pumped out of the great mines of northern England to the far-flung corners of the world.

Today, Grimsby is a very different place. Along the dockside, the industry is a shadow of its former self. Shuttered-up shops and derelict buildings line the streets around the expansive dock area that stretches for acres. The town centre, though busy, is shabby and in need of investment. Unemployment is falling, but remains higher than the national average in this predominantly working-class area. For many, Grimsby symbolises the failure of the EU project.

Many blame the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy for the decline of the fishing industry. In particular, bitterness continues about the introduction of EU fish quotas in 1983 which were designed to tackle the problem of over-fishing, but curtailed the right of British trawlers to fish in British waters and allowed other fishing boats to fish in British seas.

 Like many post-industrial towns struggling to find an identity in an increasingly globalised world, Grimsby is fertile ground for those advocating a Leave vote in next week’s EU referendum. Some of the most senior figures in the Leave campaign, including Nigel Farage on a protest on the Thames on Wednesday, have argued that an exit from the EU could trigger the re-emergence of the British fishing industry.

Figures such as fisheries minister George Eustace who backs a Brexit have argued that Britain could take back control of its territorial waters and join the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, along with Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands.

But others dispute this. Richard Corbett is a Labour MEP representing Yorkshire and the Humber. “The narrative that has taken hold that the EU is somehow to blame for the demise of the fishing industry is simply not the case. In reality, the truth is more complex than that. It was the cod wars in the 1970s and 1980s that really affected the Grimsby fish industry.”

There are also signs the fishing industry has reinvented itself. Alongside the abandoned Victorian buildings around the port area, stands the modern Grimsby Fish market. It opened in the mid-1990s , partly funded by the European Fisheries Fund. Each day a daily fish auction takes place, where catches from Norway and Iceland, but also Ireland, the Faroe Islands and other British ports, are processed.  

While the sight of hundreds of trawlers sailing through Grimsby harbour is now a distant memory, Grimsby port has reinvented itself as a major processing centre. According to Martyn Bowers, chief executive of Grimsby Fish Market, between 3,500 and 4,000 are currently employed by the industry.

“It is fair to say that the catching of fish has declined in Grimsby from its peak, but the fish industry in Grimsby has also changed and continues to develop. For example, 95 per cent of fish arrives by vehicle and 5 per cent by vessel. But processing is as strong as ever.”

He admits that while the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) did play a part in the decline of the catching sector, the cod wars with Iceland were a major factor. “Sustainability is essential. If there wasn’t the CFP there would have to be some sort of fisheries control to take its place. It’s the system that needs changing,” he says, though he notes that the Fish Market is not taking a position on the referendum.

Talking to local residents on the streets of Grimsby in the final days before the referendum on June 23rd, the overwhelming sentiment towards the EU is negative. The number one concern for people is immigration.

Jamie, a 24-year-old Grimsby resident and former member of the armed forces is in no doubt about how he will vote.

“I am definitely voting to leave. Immigrants are getting more benefits than we do. We need to be more like America, Australia, in the way we deal with immigrants.” He also criticises the way members of the armed forces have been treated by the government. “David Cameron has said that spending on defence and the armed forces would be cut if we voted to leave, but the government has cut the provisions to the armed forces anyway during the past few years.”

Tony, a 57-year-old Grimsby resident, who is originally from Leicester, is equally forthright in his views. “I’m voting out. I’ve worked for 35 years, paid all my taxes and national insurance, and immigrants who have just arrived are entitled to the same benefits.  My kids and grandkids can’t get into schools, into hospitals. I know you’ve heard it all before, but it’s true.”

With polls showing a strong class-divide, with working-class voters expected to back Brexit, towns like Grimsby are expected to show a strong turning away from the EU, due mainly to concerns about immigration. This is despite the fact that, walking around the streets of Grimsby, it is evident that the town has experienced nothing like the levels of immigration seen in other parts of the country.

Grimsby remains traditional Labour heartland, with the Labour Party managing to hold off a challenge from Ukip in the last election.

For Richard Corbett, who has been campaigning throughout the constituency, a Leave vote would hurt not only the country, but traditional Labour voters in particular. 

“The idea that leaving the European Union would benefit the economy doesn’t add up. In fact,  services and goods, including fish products, would be subject to extra tariffs if we leave the single market. This would affect working people and the population of places like Grimsby.”

With polls showing a failure by Labour to connect with its voters, getting that message across will be crucial in the final days of the campaign if Labour wants its supporters to vote to remain in the EU.