In Brexit Vote, Town’s Nostalgia for Seafaring Past Muddied Its Future


GRIMSBY, England — There aren’t a lot of fishermen left in this town in North East England, once home to one of the largest fleet of trawlers in Britain. But nostalgia for the fishing industry permeates the place. So the result seemed inevitable when 70 percent of residents voted to leave the European Union. Britain’s fishermen have complained for years about regulations imposed on all members.

The surprise came later when a local business group began lobbying to avoid tariffs, customs and the other burdens of departing the European Union. Social media scorn ensued. In thousands of tweets across the country, the people of Grimsby were derided as dummies and hypocrites. Either they wanted the upsides of Brexit with none of its costs, or they didn’t grasp the harm that leaving would cause until it was too late.

“Grimsby residents branded ‘idiots’ for Brexit vote as seafood industry seeks free trade deal,” read a headline in a local newspaper.

Actually, what happened here is more about hearts than minds. The vote to leave was a vivid demonstration of the way emotions can transform politics and affect the economy. It’s a phenomenon found around the world, including in the United States, where the legacy and the romance of a declining industrial past often eclipse the interests of new and expanding businesses. Time and again, economic facts are no competition for sentiment and history.

“Some industries that are economically insignificant have enormous public resonance,” said Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government, an independent think tank in London. “And because of that, they have political influence that is way out of proportion.”

It isn’t fishermen who are pushing for a kind of exemption from Brexit. It is a group of fish processors, an industry that is thriving in Grimsby, where fish from all over the world are gutted, packaged and sold to wholesalers. This town of 27,000 is a hub in a global supply chain.

“We haven’t fished here for 25 years,” said Simon Dwyer, who leads Seafood Grimsby & Humber Group, the organization arguing for a special free trade deal. “We’ve reinvented ourselves.”

The once-bustling docks here would be pretty desolate were it not for 70 processing warehouses with some 5,000 employees, about one-third of whom are foreign nationals, mostly Poles and Lithuanians. To stay competitive, these companies want the kind of frictionless trade and immigration policy that they currently enjoy, and will probably lose, after Brexit.

The goal of fishermen, on the other hand, is regaining full control of British waters so that they aren’t forced to compete with trawlers from other countries.

The first problem with this dream is the scarcity of local fishermen. Today, there are not enough here to fill a service elevator.

“I wouldn’t put it past 20,” said John Hancock, a skipper with three decades of experience and a fan of Brexit. “And most of them are retired or dead.”

[Read More on How the Prospects of the U.K. Voting Again on Brexit are Rising]

So how did the interests of a tiny, shrinking industry defeat a larger, thriving one at the polls? While active fisherman here are nearly extinct, the job maintains an almost folkloric hold throughout Britain.

“This is a seafaring nation,” said Martyn Boyers, chief executive of Grimsby Fish Market, which oversees the local fish auction. “Think of the Royal Navy, Nelson, Trafalgar. And every city has people who died at sea. So when fishermen said, ‘We want to come out of the E.U.,’ everyone wanted to back the fishermen.”

Brexit passed for a complex variety of reasons in Grimsby and elsewhere, including fears about immigration, sovereignty and the loss of a way of life. All of those factors played a role here and will privilege a moribund industry at the expense of one that is growing.

A similar calculus is evident in the United States, where President Trump has promised to resuscitate coal mining. It’s an industry that now employs roughly 55,000 people, a figure that has been trending downward for years. If economic agendas were driven strictly by data, a lot more would be heard about solar power, which employs about five times the number of people.

In Grimsby, the fishing past is very much alive. Pubs are filled with sepia-toned photographs of the town in its 1950s heyday, when 500 boats were crammed into what was then one of the largest ports in the world. Locals speak wistfully about the work of their fathers, taking an almost perverse pleasure in underscoring the hardships that were part of their lives.

“When I was a kid, I hardly saw my dad for 20 years,” said Steve Swallow, a port operative who was having a drink at the JD Wetherspoon pub one recent afternoon. “He used to go to Iceland, Norway, the Arctic Circle, and that’s like a month’s trip.”

On occasion, these voyages yielded no income at all. The owners of trawlers were always paid first, and when hauls weren’t large enough, fishermen went home empty-handed. It was known as “landing in debt.”

“You needed a cup of sugar,” Mr. Swallow said, “you’d go ask your neighbor.”

Pining for this bygone age seems especially baffling after a visit to Grimsby’s Fishing Heritage Center, a harrowing exhibition not far from the docks. It tells the story of what is often called “the most dangerous peacetime occupation in the U.K.,” with dioramas, wooden mannequins and piped-in voices of veterans of the sea.

One tableau features a gaunt and sooty man shoveling coal in what looks like the boiler room of a penal colony. Then the journey takes a still sadder turn when visitors walk into a period living room where a stricken woman learns from the radio that her husband, and the rest of his crew, were killed at sea.

“It’s a recording of an actual BBC broadcast,” said Dave Ornsby, the center’s operations officer. “Thirty-two ships from Grimsby sank in the ’50s.”

Apparently, none of this work or lifestyle appeals to British youths.

“You can’t get young people to fish these days,” said Danny Normandale, a skipper with three decades of experience. “If you say to them, ‘I’ll take you if you’re willing to learn,’ their next question is, ‘Do you have Wi-Fi on the boat? Do you have the internet?’”

Were the manpower problem solved, others would persist. The species in Britain’s waters are scallops, crab, lobsters and other delicacies that have never been popular in this country. The fish of choice here are cod and haddock, staples of fish-and-chip shops. Those species are found closer to Norway and Iceland.

[Read why some U.K. Lawmakers Believe Britain Should Consider Delaying Brexit]

In other words, Britain exports most of what it catches and imports most of what it eats. Either the country will need to change its appetite or it will need to trade.

Mr. Hancock, the former skipper, is undaunted. In the hallway of his office hangs a poster of a cod, clad in armor and clutching a Union Jack. Above it are the words “Fishing for Leave,” and below it “Save Britain’s Fish,” rallying cries during the Brexit campaign.

“We’ve had to make way to let every other country come and fish in our waters,” he said. “It’s like a cake that got sliced thinner and thinner. It destroyed whole communities all across this country.”

With enough investment and the right incentives, he believes that British fleets could catch as much as $5 billion worth of fish a year, five times their current annual haul.

That is the stuff of fantasy, countered Mr. Boyers, whose company manages the daily fish auction here. Fish are a uniquely international commodity, he said, and the end of European oversight would not mean the end of quotas. Those quotas are set in consultation with scientists to prevent depletion of stocks. Shirking them would infuriate any number of institutions, starting with the United Nations.

“After Brexit, our government won’t be in a position to create more fish,” Mr. Boyers said. “We’re all cogs in wheels. If you don’t integrate, you won’t get anywhere.”

The cog that Mr. Boyers oversees is one of the few that are largely unchanged from decades ago. The daily auction takes place in a chilled and cavernous hall, which one recent morning was filled with more than 2,500 yellow boxes of fish on ice, each weighing about 110 pounds. A scrum of wholesalers looked over the merchandise and then trailed auctioneers holding pen and paper.

The scene unfolded the same way 30 years ago except for one detail: Nearly all of the fish now come via the highway. They are off-loaded at a port eight miles away then packed onto a truck.

The residents of Grimsby are well aware of the role that fish processing plays in the local economy, and many doubt that a sizable fishing fleet will ever return.

It doesn’t matter. They believe that the European Union has compromised their sovereignty, and part of reclaiming it is asserting the exclusive right to trawl in Britain’s seas. They are also certain that in a post-Brexit world, Britain in general, and fish processors in particular, are going to fare just fine.

“Europe needs the U.K. more than the other way around,” said Ian Thompson, a Grimsby resident and former merchant marine, having a drink under one of those sepia-toned photographs. “We will prevail.”

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Choosing Brexit, a Town Yearned for Its Seafaring Past, and Muddied Its Future
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