In the fishing ports of the remote Shetland Islands off northern Scotland, hopes are high that Brexit could boost a once-thriving industry.
George Anderson, 59, skipper of the 70m trawler Adenia, told reporters that Brexit was a “no brainer” for Shetland fishermen.
“We only had one choice, which was to get back control,” he said, staring out on windy Lerwick Harbor from his high-tech captain’s chair.
The islands’ two fishing ports, Lerwick to the east and Scalloway to the west, are often swept by strong winds that whip up majestic waves.
“The weather? Well, the weather manages you more or less,” Anderson chuckled in a broad Shetland accent. “It’s a good job. Unless you’re a fisherman you wouldn’t know — it’s going out hunting fish, catching them, taking them back and providing for your family. The drawbacks are the limited quotas. The government has given away a lot of fish.”
In the Adenia’s crew quarters, a “Fishing for Leave” poster used in the Brexit referendum campaign last year takes pride of place.
The Shetlands, along with Scotland’s Western Isles, were the only part of the UK that voted against joining what was then the European Economic Community in a 1975 referendum.
Soon after Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973, Shetlands fishermen found themselves hit with a double-whammy of European integration and oil.
While the burgeoning oil industry was a boon for the islands as a whole, it drained workers from a fleet just as it was being compelled to share its waters with a growing number of European nations.
Overfishing led to depleted stocks and decommissioning of vessels, and subsequent quotas often saw Shetlanders sidelined in their own waters.
“It was terrible to watch the decommissioning. Good boats gone, experienced guys giving up the fishing, that was it — gone,” said Anderson, whose three sons work on the Adenia as mate, cook and engineer.
“There’s just a few boats left now,” he said. “We had a good proud fleet once upon a time and now we hope we’ll maybe get some of that back.”
Anderson, whose grandfather was also a fisherman, remembers that of the five boys in his class at school, all went into fishing.
Gary Leask, 38, skipper of the Kestrel, a 14m shellfish boat, comes from a younger generation who had a choice between fishing and oil.
“When the oil came it was guaranteed money and good wages, while the fishing is dependent on weather and fish stocks,” Leask said.
When he left school, Leask said 30 boys went on to study fishing, but only three were still employed in the industry.
“The others went into the oil or other industries, which is a shame,” he said.
The small island grouping lies deep in the North Atlantic and is closer to Oslo than London.
A fifth of the Shetlands’ workforce is employed in aquaculture, which generates one-third of the islands’ economy.
Despite their initial skepticism about the European project, 56 percent of Shetlanders voted to remain in the EU in the referendum on June 23 last year.
Scotland as a whole voted to stay in the EU, with 62 percent of votes cast there opposing Brexit, while Britain opted to leave by 52 percent to 48 percent.
There is still burning resentment here over a memo written during Britain’s negotiations to join the European Economic Community — revealed 30 years later — that said that fisheries “must be regarded as expendable.”