Scallop Wars: British and French fishermen separated by a common livelihood


Last year was marked by violent confrontations at sea between British and French fishermen as lawmakers made provisions for 2021. But despite the flares, the majority of fishermen in both the UK and France say they want to find common ground.

Many British fishermen hoped the Brexit deal would give them free access to British waters, but that has not yet been the case. And French boats have been largely blocked in the waters around the Channel Islands near the French coast. So the fishermen of both nations are frustrated.

Why we wrote that

Disputes sparked by Brexit have brought French and British fishermen into conflict. But the locals on both sides are striving for the same thing: to save their coastal communities and their local identities.

For decades before Brexit, both sides worked together regardless of government involvement to ensure that quotas and fishing rights were fair to all parties. A system of quota swapping enabled fishermen to work within the rules in such a way that both sides benefit and the sustainability of European fisheries is guaranteed for all countries.

Although the quota swap ended with Brexit, non-state negotiations could still prove critical. “[Our system] Has worked successfully for over 30 years without any government involvement, ”says Jim Portus of the South Western Fish Producer Organization in England. “We have conflicts between. avoided [fishers] from Great Britain, the Channel Islands and the French alike. “

Cherbourg, France; and Brixham, England

Derek Meredith stares at the calm, sunny waters of the English Channel, shaking his head. “It’s total anarchy out there,” he says.

Mr. Meredith is a British fisherman from Brixham, England looking for scallops near the French coast. His boat has been regularly attacked by French ships in recent years. He says he was the target of torches, stones and homemade incendiary bombs in clashes outside the French port of Le Havre, where his trawler is often surrounded by a chain of French fishing boats “almost touching”.

On the Normandy coast across the canal, Sophie and David Leroy operate five fishing trawlers through their business, Armement Cherbourgeois. And they feel besieged too. For the past two years, they have found photos of their trawlers on social media posted by fishermen from Brixham with black targets overlaid and the message “lower your boats”.

Why we wrote that

Disputes sparked by Brexit have brought French and British fishermen into conflict. But the locals on both sides are striving for the same thing: to save their coastal communities and their local identities.

“I was shocked by the aggressiveness towards fishermen and fishermen,” said Ms. Leroy, CEO of Armement Cherbourgeois, which accounts for 60% of Cherbourg’s fish supply. She and her husband come from fishing families and have dedicated their lives to industry. “They don’t realize that human lives are at stake.”

Last year was marked by violent clashes between fishermen at sea, first in the French port city of Boulogne-sur-Mer in April and then in the Channel Islands in May, when the legislature made provisions for 2021. An important sticking point in the Brexit talks: British fishermen are calling for free access to their own waters and the French are calling for historic rights to British fishing zones – where most of the fish are found.

But despite the flare-up, the majority of fishermen in both the UK and France say they want to find common ground that benefits everyone. For decades, both sides have worked together, regardless of government involvement, to ensure that quotas and fishing rights were fair to all parties. As they work to maintain the livelihoods of their national coastal communities, they also strive to maintain the integrity and sustainability of their collective fishing industry for years to come.

At the Cherbourg docks, France, fishermen from the Armement Cherbourgeois company unload whiting and haddock from the trawler Maranatha II after a morning at sea.

“It is usually the bureaucracy that brings people into opposing camps; those behind desks who have no clue about fishing practices, ”said Jim Portus, executive director of the South Western Fish Producer Organization (SWFPO) and former fisheries protection officer for the UK Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. “But I’ve worked with the French for decades moving quotas from one country to another so that we could do business when we had opportunities the French wanted or they had opportunities we needed. We did that year after year without any problems. “

“I had high hopes for Brexit”

Brixham, England is the birthplace of trawling and remains the backbone of the fishing industry throughout Northern Europe. From Brixham’s little inner harbor, where fishing vessels dried up between the tides, the port grew steadily, and by the second half of the 19th century the British fleet numbered over 3,000 vessels there.

Although Brixham is now also a hotspot for hip ex-Londoners looking for a slower life and crystal clear waters, Brixham’s rich fishing history is still alive and well in places like Brixham Fish Market, the UK’s largest in value. It’s a busy 24-hour, seven-day-a-week exporting to Belgium, the Netherlands and France, as well as the United Kingdom. Fishermen here – who largely voted for Brexit – say the Brexit deal created more paperwork and anger for the industry.

“Within the first four or five months [since Brexit became official] I would say there are still problems, ”said Barry Young, general manager of Brixham Trawler Agents, which operates the market, a fishing cooperative. In a white coat on a noisy market floor, he inspects freshly caught fish that is packed in ice-filled boxes. “We really stand 110% behind our British fishermen.”

Like Mr Young, many British fishermen hoped that the Brexit deal would give them free access to British waters. Instead, however, access is largely based on historical presence in the area – boats must prove that they fished there between 2012 and 2016.

To make matters worse, the Channel Islands are technically not part of the UK – and therefore not part of the Brexit deal – but rather autonomous, self-governing “crown dependencies” that negotiate their own terms for fishing. In their waters, current conditions favor newer boats: those that sailed between 2017 and 2019. Only 41 licenses for French boats have been issued there so far, which fueled the May dispute and further angered the French.

“So far we’ve always shared canal waters with the English, but for the first time in 20 years I’ve lost my access to Jersey,” says Jérôme Delauney, who fishes large scallops (or scallops). and out of Cherbourg. “I had high hopes for Brexit.”

The fishing industry has long been a controversial part of Brexit, but the roots of the debate stretch back to the 1970s when talks about Britain’s accession to the European Union began. Then, as now, the fishing industry represented a small part of the economy – less than 1% in the EU as a whole. But as the late British chief negotiator Sir Con O’Neill wrote of the 1972 EU talks, “the question of fisheries was economic peanuts but political dynamite”.

Fishermen moor their boats in Brixham Harbor, the birthplace of modern trawling in Northern Europe.

“Brexit was all about making Britain great again and controlling the waves,” says Nick Witney, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The great British maritime tradition, like the French, goes back hundreds of years. … Fishing opens up all of national myth-making, but ultimately it’s a trivial economic problem. “

The feeling on both sides of the channel is that the Brexit deal is still in the works and still doesn’t reflect the wishes of either side.

“We thought we were being thrown completely out of English waters and left alone with Jersey [one of the Channel Islands, just a dozen miles off the French coast]and it turned out to be the opposite, ”says Marc Delahaye, Director of the Regional Committee for Sea Fisheries in Normandy (CRPMN), whose office is across from the sprawling port of Cherbourg. The Normandy region has 2,200 fishermen and Mr Delahaye estimates that every job at sea is two to three on land. “Our feeling in France is that London is now trying to renegotiate the fisheries to their advantage as part of the Brexit deal. But the situation is gradually developing. “

The British also fear that the other side could take advantage of it. Most of the vessels registered in England are owned by foreign companies in the EU, which often take home catches of up to 160 million pounds (USD 225 million) annually.

A private way of working together?

Although there is an EU framework that defines fishing zones and quotas for the total catch, the fishermen on the other side of the canal have been operating independently of the governments for decades. A system of quota swapping has enabled fishermen to work within the rules in a way that benefits both sides and ensures that European fisheries remain sustainable for all countries.

Nowhere is this collaboration more evident than at the mid-channel conference that SWFPO’s Mr Portus launched 30 years ago. Once a year fishermen from all over Europe meet to find ways of “not stepping on each other” and to ensure that EU rules are mutually beneficial. However, under the Brexit provisions, international quota swaps ended in January of this year, which may thwart future cooperation between the British and French on the ground.

“[Our system] Has worked successfully for over 30 years without any government involvement and as a result there is an element of harmony between the trawlers of Holland, Germany, France and Great Britain, ”says Portus. “We have conflicts between. avoided [fishers] from Great Britain, the Channel Islands and the French alike. “

This year the conference could not take place because of the pandemic. But it still represents an opportunity for French and British fishermen to work together in the years to come, regardless of the potential consequences of the Brexit deal.

The zone between France and the UK will of necessity retain some strategic industrial importance – over 100 species of fish span EU-UK waters. And there is a sense of solidarity among fishermen on both sides of the Canal that is worth fighting for for this small but thriving industry.

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“People definitely shouldn’t believe that the relationship between French and English fishermen and women is bad because it’s just not true,” says Ms. Leroy in the Armement Cherbourgeois office as her husband David dumps boxes of whiting and haddock from hers Trawler Maranatha II down on the dock.

“Fishing is my livelihood. It’s my life, ”she says. “Fortunately, I still have hope for the future of this industry.”



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