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Meet the British Fishermen Who Want Out of the E.U.

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Known locally as “three day millionaires,” for their habit of spending all their wages in 72 hours after a month at sea, fishermen like Bob Mackie in the northeastern British town of Grimsby once enjoyed a life that had purpose and style.

Laden with cash, fishermen half a century ago would don extravagant silk-lined suits before spending their money on dinner, a dance and endless rounds of drinks—and then roll back onto a trawler and out to fishing grounds near Iceland and Norway. “It was boom town,” remembers Mackie, “with pockets full of money waiting to get into the pubs.”

But today, says Mackie, while leaning on his left leg— having lost the other when it was crushed by a winch on a trawler at the age 18—the sight of the once great port of his youth and its decaying Victorian buildings only brings “tears to my eye.” The 65-year-old believes joining the European Union destroyed the livelihoods of British trawlermen like him, and, like most in Grimsby, he is poised to vote to leave in the upcoming June 23 referendum on Britain’s status in the E.U.

Located at the mouth of the River Humber and the North Sea, this town of close to 90,000 has experienced some of the worst unemployment in the country since the collapse of its fishing industry in the 1980s, when the last deep sea trawler, the Ross Cougar, landed in 1985. “It [the E.U.] has put us all out of jobs” says Mackie. “They decimated the fishing communities.”

In its postwar heyday, Grimsby had a fleet of over 700 fishing vessels and around 6,800 fishermen, catching up to 20,000 metric tons of fish a day—making it, at the time, the largest fish market in the world. Now, all that is left of that legacy is a local museum and the town’s soccer club logo: a trawler and three cod.

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Many people in Grimsby attribute the industry’s demise to the E.U.’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The CFP, which was adopted in 1983, restricted member nations exclusive fishing rights to a belt of water 12-nautical miles from their own coastlines, leaving the rest of the waters open to all other member-states. It also enforced national quotas—limits on the amount of fish every nation could take—to sustain stocks in a North Sea that had been severely depleted by years of overfishing.

Speaking before the start of a Vote Leave campaign rally on the pier in the neighboring town of Cleethorpes, Grimsby local John Stockton maintains that the decline of the town is on the E.U.’s shoulders. “We don’t have control of our own waters” says Stockton, a local councillor for the Eurosceptic U.K. Independence Party (UKIP). He believes that without Europe and its constraints, Grimsby could rebuild its fishing fleet—and its prosperity.

Former fisherman Ray Michalson, 61, stands outside his home in Grimsby, U.K., on May 27, 2016.
Former fisherman Ray Michalson, 61, stands outside his home in Grimsby, U.K., on May 27, 2016.Photograph by Tara John

Not everyone agrees the E.U. is at fault. John Vincent, who conducts tours on the Ross Tiger, a fishing trawler that has been turned into a museum ship at the Grimsby Heritage Centre, says political mismanagement of a row with Iceland—a country that’s not even in the E.U.—is what really led to the town’s decline.

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From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Britain fought bitter disputes with Iceland, known as the Cod Wars, over access to its fishing grounds. For a time, U.K. navy boats were even accompanying fishing trawlers into Icelandic waters. Britain only agreed to stop fishing within 200 nautical miles of Nordic country’s coastline in 1976 after Reykjavík threatened to pull out of NATO and close a critical U.S. Navy base.

The Cod Wars were one part of crisis, says Professor Richard Barnes, who teaches maritime and international law at the University of Hull. Grimsby fishermen “became the victim of their own success,” catching so much that they degraded local fish numbers soon after the sector industrialized in the early 20th century. Faced with dwindling fish stocks near home, British fishing vessels were forced find their catch in Nordic waters.

He admits that increased competition through globalization and joining the E.U.’s common market dealt another blow to local fishing communities like Grimsby. However, the E.U. plays a vital role managing the complex state of the seas. “Fish don’t stay in waters that are particular to the U.K.,” says Barnes. “Most of them move through waters of different member states and increasingly things like climate change will push fisheries further north in colder waters.” With global fish stocks depleted, organizations like the E.U. are essential: “These are things that can’t be done on your own, you will have to cooperate with other states.”

For some in Grimsby, though, the out vote is more about emotion than economics. In spite of the demise of the fishing industry, Steve Norton, the head of the Grimsby Fish Merchants Association, a trade body, notes that the coastal town has succeeded in becoming the U.K.’s hub for chilled seafood processing. Norton lauds the E.U.’s European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, which provides grants to the fishing sector. The run-down docks is now home to numerous renewable energy companies, including Danish offshore wind-power giant DONG Energy, diversifying the areas industry and providing thousands of new jobs—again thanks to the E.U.

Retired fisherman Peter Cole, 62, points to an old photograph of the local docks at his home in Grimsby, U.K., on May 27, 2016.
Retired fisherman Peter Cole, 62, points to an old photograph of the local docks at his home in Grimsby, U.K., on May 27, 2016.Photograph by Tara John

But Norton says, “nobody wants to be a part of the federal states of Europe.”

This fear is echoed by others. On a Friday afternoon outside their rows of eggshell-white homes provided by a local fishing charity, Mackie and his neighbors discuss the referendum over a bottle of whiskey. They express concerns including worries that European immigrants are taking British jobs, shaking their heads over Britain ‘unwittingly’ becoming a part of a continental superstate. Appeals by foreign leaders to vote to stay in the E.U., including U.S. President Barack Obama’s in April, have done little to dissuade the town’s staunch Eurosceptics. “Obama said it would be a worse thing leaving the EU, what does it have to do with him?” asks 61-year-old Ray Michalson.

The town is adamant that foreigners—including Europeans—should not meddle in national issues. That includes Vincent, the former fisherman, who is also critical of what he sees as the E.U.’s intervention into British affairs. According to him, Britain should regain its dominion over 200 miles of water from its shores and regain the pride that Grimsby lost all those years ago. “We are seafarers, we are an island nation” he says, standing on the now rotting deck of the Ross Tiger. “We are not made for Europe.”

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