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Brexit tensions underlie Franco-British fishing dispute

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French and British fishing boats on the English channel France 3

An altercation between French and British fishermen off the coast of Normandy in north-western France on Tuesday has highlighted a 15-year dispute over fishing rights that is heading into uncharted waters with Brexit.


Some 35 French vessels chased away five British boats that were fishing for scallops in the Baie de Seine, of the coast of Normandy in north-western France, on Tuesday.

The incident happened in French waters in which both states have the legal right to fish under European law, and the EU’s governing body weighed in on Wednesday to call on each side to reach an “amicable” agreement.

“Over the past years common management measures have been agreed between France, the UK and Ireland,” said European Commission spokesperson Daniel Rosario.

“It is in the interest first and foremost of the fishermen that this agreement is in place. And we invite the national authorities to resolve any dispute in an amicable way, as has been done in the past.”

A clash of different fishing cultures

The dispute largely comes down to different fishing cultures, in which artisanal French fishers restricted to a season lasting from October to May struggle to compete with large and modern British vessels fishing year-round.

“The French fishers have put into place specific measures to protect the resource,” says Manuel Evrard, director of the Organisation of Normandy Fishers.

“We try to share this specific measure with the English fishermen, but unfortunately they have not adopted this measure so far.”

In recent years, larger British ships have agreed to stay out of the Baie de Seine in exchange for other rights.

The deal fell through this year, setting the stage for Tuesday’s conflict, and now both sides now appear to be going back to the discussion table.

“I imagine the French side will want to talk about arrangements for conserving scallops through a seasonal closure, and the UK will have its own views on that,” says Barrie Deas, CEO of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations in the UK.

“Agreements have been reached in the past, and there are many difficult issues in fisheries management rights across Europe, but they’re usually capable of being resolved one way or another by sitting around the table.”

Brexit to change terms of talks

The terms by which each country’s fishers can enter the other’s waters will change when Britain leaves the European Union and European law no longer applies.

“After the transition period, our access in to French waters and French access into UK waters will be a matter of negotiation between the two parties,” says Barrie Deas.

“The UK will be a coastal state governing its own waters, the EU will be a coastal state governing its waters, so things will change automatically under international law.”

On the one hand, Brexit would thus seem to provide a solution to the issue with the scallops, as UK vessels would have no immediate legal basis for entering the Baie de Seine.

But on the other hand, scallops are just one part of an industry in which fishers from each country routinely enter the others’ waters without incident.

Underlying the current dispute, then, is the understanding that the two sides will have to work together anyways.

“I believe we still have to fish together in the Channel, so it’s not just a question of waiting for the Brexit,” says Marcel Evrard.

“We really have to move forward and reach an agreement, because we still have to fish, we still have to share the area between English and French fishermen.”