When a Danish trawler docks on the island of Rügen in the early hours of a stormy Thursday morning, the Euro-Baltic plant at Sassnitz-Mukran suddenly jolts to life.
Via a network of subterranean tubes, 1,400 tonnes of slippery North Sea herring are pumped from the belly of the ship and belched out onto an assembly line inside the factory on Germany’s largest island, where the silvery-blue fish are blow-dried, weighed, gutted and either sliced into fillets or chopped into bite-sized chunks.
Forty hours earlier, these oily foragers were basking off the coast of the Shetland Islands. Thanks to the European Union’s common fisheries policy (CFP), they now float in vats of marinade, gently shaken every six hours by a robot to spread the brine. Some of them will soon be ready to be wrapped around slices of pickled gherkin to become rollmops, a popular German hangover cure.
If Boris Johnson’s government were to have its way, however, the assembly line at Sassnitz-Mukran could soon come to a halt. As negotiations on post-Brexit fishing rights get under way , the UK has reaffirmed its intention to become an independent coastal state when the extension period ends this year.
Operating under the UN convention on the law of the sea rather than the CFP, Britain would have control over an exclusive economic zone up to 200 nautical miles off its shore and wants to annually set its own quotas for those it allows to fish in its waters.
With the promise to “take back control” resonating particularly loudly in totemic Brexit-supporting fishing communities such as Grimsby, this is likely to mean preferred access to British fishermen and pushing out EU boats.
The fear at the herring processing plant on Rügen is that it won’t even come to that. “The worst-case scenario if we get a hard Brexit after all, without an agreement on fishing rights,”said Uwe Richter, the factory’s director, “[is] we’d lose our access rights to the British economic area in an instant and wouldn’t have any opportunities to bring in any herring in the second half of the year.”
In theory, under such a scenario it would be possible for Scottish trawlers to deliver herring to Rügen instead. But if a bust-up over fishing rights were to derail negotiations over a trade deal between Britain and the EU, it could quickly spell trouble for Euro-Baltic.
“If there is no trade deal we get whacked with tariffs and paperwork, so the herring stinks to the heavens by the time it arrives and the whole business becomes unaffordable,” Richter said. “Herring is a very sensitive fish. You can’t afford to transport it from auction to auction. If you want a good product, you need the shortest routes possible.”
Such fears are shared in Berlin’s seats of power. The German government believes the explosive debate around fishing, which makes up only 0.1% of the UK’s economy and 0.02% of Germany’s, has the potential to sour the tone of more important negotiations, such as over trade, security cooperations and financial services.
“If the negotiations get bogged down on fishing, which is not crucial economically but highly symbolic and emotive, it becomes harder to have a more sober debate further down the line,” said a German official familiar with the talks.
Part of the problem is that fish, and herring in particular, is not just a highly symbolic subject for Britain, but also for the woman at the top of Germany’s government. The Euro-Baltic plant lies in Vorpommern-Rügen – Vorpommern-Greifswald I, which has since 1990 been the constituency of Angela Merkel.
What locals here call “the silver of the sea” has been a key industry in the region for centuries. Some of the small herring-fishing villages on Rügen’s northernmost tip date back to the 12th century, and the industry blossomed again during the time of the German Democratic Republic, when East Germany’s socialist regime invested heavily in expanding ocean fishing.
Franz Plaep, 82, a retired trawler captain, remembers the 1950s as the island’s “golden era”, when Sassnitz harbour was home to 200 vessels that sailed as far as Africa or New York, and fishermen had one of the few profession in the one-party state that knew no borders.
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After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fishing industry on Rügen collapsed with the same speed as many of East Germany’s other state-run industries.
In Sassnitz harbour, one company still sells soused, pickled or smoked herring its cutters catch off the island’s coast as a local delicacy in a company-owned shop, but only a small share of the fleet’s catch is exported off the island. A group of fishermen in Rügen’s north-west are hoping to turn tinned herring into a luxury product in the way the Portuguese have managed with sardines, though the scale of their enterprise is even more limited.
In the seaside bar where Hans Plaep and his former colleagues meet every morning from 8 til 9 for a coffee, there is a famous photograph on the wall that shows a young Angela Merkel talking to local fishermen in a hut in the village of Lobbe. The photo was taken in 1990, when she was 36 years old. The fisherman’s hut has since shut down, like many others; of about 2,000 fishing businesses that existed on the island in 1990, barely 100 remain.
When Dutch multinational Parlevliet & Van der Plas (P&P) built the Euro-Baltic processing plant in 2003, it became a crucial crutch for a regional economy in structural decline. With 140 full-time employees and 80 seasonal contract workers, it is one of the biggest employers on the island.
Local authorities had managed to entice P&P to the island with EU grants and by helping to procure scientific permits to reclaim the plot of land from the sea on which the plant now sits.
In 2020, however, Brexit is one of two developments threatening to kick the last legs from under Rügen’s remaining fishing industry. Catchment quotas for the Baltic sea, set by Brussels on the advice of maritime scientists, have shrunk dramatically in recent years, down 65% from last year, to 1,700 tonnes. In 2003, fishermen were still allowed to fish 35,000 tones of herring out of the Baltic. The reasons behind the decline of stocks are unclear, with speculative fingers pointed at global warming, noisy sub-aquatic building works around the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and a growing population of hungry seals.
“The quota may go up again, of course,” said Uwe Richter. “But when you are at such a low level it may take longer than we can afford to wait.” Processing different fish instead, such as anchovies or red mullet, is not an option – the high-tech machinery inside the plant is tailored towards slender herring. For now, the viability of his business is reliant on access to British waters. “Without them, we run the risk that the plant will be at a standstill for long periods.”
Merkel appears to be aware of their plight. In Germany’s federalised political system, delegates are not expected to parade local issues into the business of the Bundestag in the way they are in Westminster. But in her role as environment minister under Helmut Kohl and later as chancellor, Merkel has frequently visited fishermen on the shores of the Baltic Sea, most recently in 2015, when she christened “Mark”, one of the large trawlers in Euro-Baltic’s fleet that could from next year be barred from British waters.
The threat posed to the local fishing industry by Britain’s exit from the EU, people on the island say, has been on the chancellor’s mind since the UK voted to leave. Her chief of staff visited Euro-Baltic as soon as Brexit negotiations started in earnest, and in the 2017 coalition treaty between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic party, the word “Brexit” appears only once – under the chapter heading “Fishing, Angling and Aquaculture”.
If there’s still hope in Sassnitz, it’s because there is an expectation that the Brits will come to recognise the absurdity of the situation. One of the quirks of European cuisine is that both Germany and Britain’s culinary habits are not matched to the maritime fauna at its disposal. Herring plays a minor role on British menus, and the cod used for fish and chips is largely caught in waters off Scandinavia. In Germany, meanwhile, herring remains one of the three most popular types of fish on the menu.
If British fishermen want to sell the fish in their seas, they will not only need some form of easy access to EU markets, but also trawlers of the size and processing infrastructure of the scale provided by Euro-Baltic.
Britain could try to build its own processing capacity, perhaps even buying out large Dutch companies such as P&P or Cornelis Vrolijk that dominate the trade, suggests Rodney Forster, a marine scientist at the University of Hull department.
“Could the UK build factory freezer trawlers and processing facilities, and find markets for a large-scale pelagic fishery? Or more likely, could the UK simply buy out P&P and re-flag some of its vessels as UK, and move processing to the UK? Could Grimsby be expanded as a fish processing base?” Financially, that seems possible, he adds. “But would Britain perform such a volte face in industrial policy for such a small sector of the economy? I would be surprised.”
For now, Uwe Richter reckons, a no-deal Brexit would be bad news for both herring handlers in the Baltic and the North Sea. “Our worst-case scenario is also the worst-case scenario for British fishermen.”