"It was the worst three years" of his career, Mark Addison told AFP in front of his trawler, the Benarkle II, moored just behind the Peterhead fish market in northern Scotland.

"Brexit and then the war in Ukraine," which sent fuel costs and equipment such as fishing nets soaring, "were really two blows one after the other," adds the red-bearded fisherman, clear eyes and navy blue jumpsuit.

The fishing sector, an economic featherweight, has been the figurehead of the campaign for the British exit from the European Union, demanding more fishing quotas in the North Sea and the Channel, considered unfairly distributed.

Politicians have come and gun in the ports of Grimsby in north-east England, or Peterhead, home to one of the country's main fishing ports and Europe's largest wholesale market for white fish.

Return to Peterhead Harbour, Scotland, for the fishermen of the "Steadfast Hope", September 7, 2023 © Andy Buchanan / AFP

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, then campaigning for the 2019 legislative elections, had promised "an ocean of opportunities".

Today, those who hoped for Brexit believe that they have been sold "a lie", like Mark Addison.

He sees favorably the increase in fishing quotas in favor of the United Kingdom provided for in the post-Brexit free trade agreement with Brussels, which entered into force at the beginning of 2021. But it faces the indirect fallout of leaving the EU for its customers who export to the continent.

"There are problems with queues at border posts for passports and customs forms, problems with groupage (of cargo) in trucks, there is always something," he said.

When a cargo of fish, a perishable commodity if any, is lost or delayed, this weighs down the price offered by exporters on subsequent sales for its whiting, haddocks, or other cod.

"You have to deal with it"

This forces him to be more selective. Fish whose flesh spoils quickly, it is no longer worth it, he says, whereas before leaving the EU, he took everything he could in his nets with the assurance of getting a good price.

The fish market in Peterhead, Scotland, Europe's largest wholesale for white fish, September 7, 2023 © Andy Buchanan / AFP

But as he explains with a resigned look: "I have three sons on this boat. When you're a small family affair, you have to deal with it."

"There are undoubtedly big deals that have benefited" from Brexit, said Bryce Stewart, a specialist in fisheries and marine ecology at the University of York. But "small businesses, which make up the majority of the country's fleet, have not benefited from it, or even suffered from it."

In the Peterhead Market Hall, as big as a football field, hundreds of crates of fish are lined up in the early morning under the pale neon light.

About fifty merchants in plastic boots and waxed proceed to the auction of the day, bidding at a glance. In less than two hours, 6,000 cases will be auctioned.

In the fish market hall in Peterhead, Scotland, on September 7, 2023 © Andy Buchanan / AFP

Graeme Sutherland, co-director of White Link Seafood, was pro-Brexit, like a majority of fishermen, but admits the promises did not materialise.

"We still hope after 2026 on the side of fishing quotas," explains with a sweet smile the one who co-manages a family business of fishing and processing that employs about 200 people.

Especially since the cost of living crisis is being felt: "selling prices are tighter this year on high-end fish. We see that money is scarce," he told AFP.

Stewart said the EU has no interest in giving up more allowances after the transition period until 2026, and that the UK has little leverage on the bloc, its biggest market.

Freshly caught fish in Peterhead, Scotland, September 7, 2023 © Andy Buchanan / AFP

Alistair Brown, who runs Nolan Seafoods' operations, doesn't have harsh words. "For fish processing companies, Brexit has been a disaster that only brings additional costs." Not to mention employee shortages. "We need foreign staff in our factories." "For us everything is tense at the moment because of costs, inflation. It all depends on our customers, and they ask for cheaper fish."

© 2023 AFP