Nigel Farage, the leader of Ukip, is to lead a flotilla of fishing trawlers up the Thames to central London to call for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, in a mass protest timed to coincide with prime minister’s questions.
The flotilla of at least 35 boats – including huge herring and mackerel trawlers from the north of Scotland as well as smaller vessels from English ports – is being organised by Scottish skippers, who set up the pro-Brexit Fishing for Leave campaign several weeks ago.
The organisers hope the flotilla, which is reminiscent of go-slow protests by hauliers and taxi drivers, will arrive at Tower Bridge by high tide on 15 June, about an hour after the final PMQs before the referendum on 23 June.
The vessels, expected to include small inshore fishing boats and trawlers from English ports including Newlyn and Ramsgate, are to gather off Southend in Essex at dawn before sailing up the Thames.
The number of boats is limited by Thames navigation and safety rules, the organisers said, but Farage predicted the event would be “big, visual and dramatic”.
John Buchan, treasurer of Fishing for Leave, said he hoped the flotilla would be greeted by scores of pro-Brexit MPs and activists, as well as Farage, who revealed his involvement on LBC radio.
The Ukip leader said: “One thing I can promise you is you are about to hear a lot about the fishing industry.
“On 15 June I will be boarding a small trawler in Southend-on-Sea at 5am and we will catch the flood tide. There will be 60 boats in a flotilla coming up the Thames and we will arrive outside the Palace of Westminster at midday.
“It will be big, visual and dramatic. The demand will be clear: we want our waters back.”
Buchan said: “It’s the last prime minister’s questions before the recess and I think high tide is about an hour after David Cameron sits down. So I would imagine that every Brexit MP who stands up [in PMQs] will have a fisheries question to ask.”
Farage met Fishing for Leave organisers when he addressed a rally with the pro-Brexit UK fisheries minister, George Eustice, at a fisheries exhibition in Aberdeen last Friday.
Buchan said they were still in discussions with skippers of the UK’s largest trawlers, the 65- to 70-metre pelagic vessels based in Shetland and north-east Scotland, to ensure some were able to make the five-day return voyage.
He said the fuel costs of the round trip were very high given the skippers would have no catch to sell after the voyage. Most are tied up on the quayside as the mackerel and herring seasons are over.
Fishing for Leave argues that its industry would be better off if the UK left the EU but had the same status as Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands during fisheries quota talks.
He said the current system meant the UK was one of half a dozen EU nations in those negotiations, and was unable to represent itself and its own interests. “If we got Brexit, the same meeting would happen but there would be an EU commissioner, a Scottish minister but also a UK minister sitting there too. That is critical. It’s an absolute no-brainer for fishermen.”
During last year’s election campaign when Farage promoted Ukip’s fisheries policy in Grimsby, Greenpeace accused the Ukip leader of hypocrisy. It said Farage had only attended one of 42 meetings while he was a member of the European parliament’s fisheries committee, and failed to take part in three votes to reform the common fisheries policy.
But there is a deep split on the issue within the wider fisheries and seafood sector. While the vast majority of trawlermen are thought to back leave, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, the official representative body, has taken a neutral stance on the referendum.
Industry leaders worry that if the UK were to leave the EU a UK government could quite easily use British fishing stocks as a bargaining chip, rather than honour the current promises being made by Brexit campaign leaders to fight hard for the industry.
The EU system allows UK boats to trade their quotas and catch more as a result.
“The size of our industry with regards to the rest of the economy leads me to fear that we will have many a fight on our hands to get ministers to act in a way which will be beneficial to us,” said one senior source.
Sources also said the Dutch and Icelandic conglomerates that own the deep water fishing fleet based in Hull, which is British registered and crewed, wanted the UK to remain in the EU.
The largest firms in the Scottish salmon farming industry, which earns more than £630m – about 50% more than the £426m that the UK seagoing fleet is worth for Britain’s GDP – want to remain in the UK as it relies heavily on the EU single market.
The largest of the salmon farming companies, Norwegian-owned Marine Harvest, said it opposed Brexit, as do specialist seafood producers such as Northern Ireland’s £3m-a-year eel-harvest industry.
This article was written by Severin Carrell Scotland editor, for theguardian.com on Friday 3rd June 2016 11.06 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010