Newlyn, Cornwall – James Hellewell, a picture-book image of a bearded fisherman, contemplates what could happen in the high seas off the English peninsula Cornwall on the first day after a “hard Brexit”.

“Someone’s going to die,” Hellewell warns. “If a trawler has got its beams out and a Frenchman goes and hits it under the beam, he can turn that boat turtle.”

Hellewell, like many others in the fishing community of Newlyn in southwest Cornwall, fears European boats will test Britain’s resolve to take back control of its territorial waters if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union without an exit agreement on March 29.

The waters are currently shared by European fishermen under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, but once outside the EU, Britain will regain full control of fishing stocks unless its government reaches a deal with Brussels over the terms of its withdrawal.

Although many fishermen in Cornwall support Brexit, they want conditions put in place that will protect their livelihood and interests.

Fears of ‘Cod Wars’

Hellewell and other fisherman’s fears evoke memories of the “Cod Wars” between fishing boats from Britain and Iceland during the 1970s after the Icelandic capital ‎Reykjavík‎ imposed limits on fishing in its territorial waters. 

James Hellewell drinks tea in the galley of the Crystal Sea trawler in Newlyn harbour [Gavin O’Toole/Al Jazeera]

Newlyn Harbourmaster Rob Parsons also points to the behaviour of French fishermen in August when they clashed with British boats over shellfish stocks in the Bay of Seine.

Boats collided and stones were thrown when about 40 French boats tried to stop five British boats from fishing 12 nautical miles off the coast of Normandy, accusing them of depleting shellfish stocks.

“It’s not a safe place to work at the best of times, and when you’ve got people colliding with you simply because they are upset about fishing rights, people are going to die,” he says.

Political deadlock in Britain over the terms of its departure from the EU is fuelling such fears.

As the Brexit deadline looms, Prime Minister Theresa May and her cabinet have spent nearly $2.5bn to make emergency preparations for a no deal – including $511m to ensure that trade in fish, food and chemicals can continue.

Leaving the EU without a deal could cause a headache over the sale of British products in European markets and vice versa, which has been taken for granted for years.

Paul Trebilcock, chief executive of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation, says, “This is a bit like Iceland the other way round: when they declared a 200-mile limit, the UK fleet didn’t say ‘That’s fair enough’, they went up there and tried to test it. That was the Cod Wars.”

He says there are already tensions between European and British boats competing for catches in the area, indicating it would take little for these to spill over. 

“Our real beef isn’t with the French fishing fleet, it’s with the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). But there are tensions right now, where French trawlers damage the gear of our local inshore boats worth tens of thousands of pounds.”

Trebilcock argues that under a no-deal Brexit, UK fishing patrol vessels would have to act robustly against European boats on day one in order to “send a message”.

And as the blustery harbour about 14km from “Land’s End” – the most westerly point of the UK, jabbing into the Celtic Sea – finds itself on the front line of the battle over the meaning of Brexit, fishermen believe the outcome for their industry will be the symbolic test of the Conservative government’s commitment – or lack of it – to defending UK interests.

‘Betrayal and sell out’

Cornwall’s fishermen exemplify the 92 percent of the British fishing industry who voted to leave the EU in June 2016. 

The sea here is so rich it has attracted fishing boats from along the continental seaboard since 1973 when UK politicians opened its waters to secure membership of the European community.

Fishermen insist they have been the biggest losers in the quotas set by Brussels ever since, leaving them at a huge competitive disadvantage. Nearly 60 percent of the fish caught in UK waters last year was by EU boats.

“Brexit offers us a chance to change things – to get out from under the CFP which has held us back, to get that fair share of the fish and shellfish in our waters and to actually have control over who fishes, where, and what for,” Trebilcock says.

There is widespread support for this position in Newlyn.

Fisherman David Hichens, 58, says the CFP has been a shipwreck for the area as he prepares gear on The Cornishman, a beam trawler or “beamer”.

“The foreign boats are holding more cards than we are. It’s been happening for years, because we haven’t got the quota. We are chucking live fish back into the water, it’s ridiculous,” Hitchens says.

Freshly landed fish outside Newlyn’s fish market [Gavin O’Toole/Al Jazeera] 

At 68, David Stevens remembers how things were before Britain joined the European community as he sits in the galley of the Crystal Sea.

“When they took us into Europe, the French fiddled the figures – that’s why there is such a disparity between our quotas and theirs – and our government has been too soft,” he says.

Stevens insists the French overestimated the size of their fishing industry in 1973 in order to gain an unfair advantage when it came to the setting of quotas – and that British politicians did not challenge this.

‘Golden opportunity’

The demand repeated insistently by Newlyn’s fishing community is simple: fairness.

Trebilcock says his measure of what would be a good deal for Britain includes a 19.3km fishing zone exclusively for UK boats and a 19.3-322km zone governed by a licensing system that benefits Britain.

He has a vision of a revival in which the UK becomes a leading fish-exporting nation like Norway: At least one shellfish supplier in Newlyn now exports by air to China, for example.

Nonetheless, there is recognition that a no-deal Brexit would not be plain sailing. Eighty percent of the Cornish catch is sold in Europe, the main market for Newlyn’s fishermen.

As he prepares the beamer Trevessa IV to leave harbour, skipper Robert McCreath says, “If it was a hard Brexit and they gave us what they promised, it would be wonderful, but then what happens if the European Union turns round and say ‘No access to our markets’? So there will have to be a compromise.” 

Robert McCreath, skipper of the Trevessa IV says there must be a compromise [Gavin O’Toole/Al Jazeera] 

Alongside trading rules, there is uncertainty about whether the UK government will reimburse lost EU funds that support crucial infrastructure – Newlyn’s noisy fish market, for example, is 75-percent funded by European maritime fisheries funds.

Legal barriers aside, there are also fears that disgruntled French producers may simply obstruct British boats trying to land their catches.

And there are nagging questions over what happens to the Europeans that make up a sizeable proportion of the crews operating out of Newlyn whose status remains unclear.

Crab fisherman Armands Selis, the Latvian skipper of the Delta Dawn, has been fishing in Cornwall seven years and his crew of three are all from overseas.

“In Newlyn Harbour, there are now 10 boats that are just European – they make up 30 to 40 percent of boats. English crews just don’t want to work on the crab boats,” he says.

High stakes

A lot is now at stake as May’s government battles to push her unpopular “soft Brexit” deal with the EU through parliament. 

This kicks thorny issues down the road until Britain establishes its longer-term trading relationship with Europe, delaying UK control of its waters until 2020.

The deeper fear in Newlyn is that fishing will again be used by politicians as a bargaining chip to benefit the larger farming and manufacturing sectors.

“The government will do what’s best for the government, they will never do what’s best for anybody else – fishing industry or otherwise,” says Sonia Andrews, a buyer at Newlyn’s fish market.

Peter Elsworth, skipper of the James RH Stevenson, adds that “fishing is still considered in this country as a romantic industry, but in the whole scheme of things, as far as the government is concerned, it’s disposable.” 

Nonetheless, whatever happens, there is now a crucial difference to the 1970s.

Although sea fishing accounts for just 0.5 percent of the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP), its symbolic importance to Brexiteers has given it political muscle.

“Economically, fishing is small, but look at the position it is occupying on the political agenda,” Trebilcock says.

“There will be consequences, politically, if they let the fishing industry down this time – it will be political suicide for Theresa May and the Conservative government.”

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