Scallop wars: British and French fishers separated by a shared livelihood

Derek Meredith stares out 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 fisher from Brixham, England, who scouts for scallops near the French coast, and he says his boat has regularly been attacked by French vessels in recent years. He says he’s been the target of flares, rocks, and homemade firebombs during confrontations off the French port of Le Havre, where his trawler is often surrounded by a chain of French fish boats “almost touching each other.”

On the Normandy coast on the other side of the channel, Sophie and David Leroy run five fishing trawlers through their business, Armement Cherbourgeois. And they also feel under siege. In the past two years, they’ve found photos of their trawlers on social media posted by Brixham-based fishers with superimposed black targets and the message “sink their boats.”

Why We Wrote This

Disputes sparked by Brexit have pitted French and British fishers at odds with one another. But locals on both sides are striving for the same thing: to save their coastal communities and local identities.

“I’ve been shocked by the aggressiveness towards fishermen and women,” says Ms. Leroy, the CEO of Armement Cherbourgeois, which contributes 60% of Cherbourg’s fish supply. She and her husband come from fishing families and have devoted their lives to the industry. “They don’t realize that there are human lives at stake.”

This past year has been marked by violent confrontations at sea between fishers, first at the French port town of Boulogne-sur-Mer in April and then at the Channel Islands in May, as legislators hashed out arrangements for 2021. The fishing industry was a major sticking point in the Brexit talks, with British fishers calling for free access to their own waters, and the French claiming historical rights to British fishing zones – where the majority of fish are found.

But despite the flare-ups, the majority of fishers in both Britain and France say they want to find common ground to benefit everyone. For decades, the two sides have worked together independently of government involvement to ensure that quotas and fishing rights were fair to all parties. Even as they work to preserve the livelihoods of their national coastal communities, they’re also striving to preserve the integrity and sustainability of their shared fishing industry for years to come.

“It tends to be bureaucracy that puts people in opposing camps; those sitting behind desks that know nothing about fishing practicalities,” says Jim Portus, chief executive of the South Western Fish Producer Organization (SWFPO) and a former fishery protection officer at the U.K. Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing, and Food. “But I’ve worked with the French for decades on the transfer of quotas from one country to another, so that if we had opportunities that the French wanted or they had opportunities we needed, we could do deals. We did that readily, year on year.”

“I had high hopes for Brexit”

Brixham, England, is the birthplace of the trawling industry and remains the backbone of the fishing industry throughout Northern Europe. From Brixham’s small inner harbor, where fishing vessels dried out between tides, the port grew steadily, and by the latter half of the 19th century, the British fleet there totaled more than 3,000 vessels.

While now it’s also a hot spot for hip ex-Londoners looking for a slower pace of life and crystal blue waters, Brixham’s rich fishing history is still alive and well in places like the Brixham Fish Market, Britain’s largest by value. It’s a grueling 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week operation that exports to Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, as well as within the United Kingdom. Fishers here – who largely voted in favor of Brexit – say that the Brexit deal has created more paperwork and hassle for the industry.

“Within the first four or five months [since Brexit became official] I would say there are still issues,” says Barry Young, managing director of Brixham Trawler Agents, which runs the market, a fisher-owned cooperative. In a white coat on a noisy market floor, he checks freshly caught fish packed inside ice-filled crates. “We’re really behind our U.K. fishermen 110%.”

Like Mr. Young, many British fishers were hoping the Brexit deal would grant them free access to U.K. waters. But instead, access is largely based on historical presence in the area – boats must prove they fished there between 2012 and 2016.

Further complicating matters are the Channel Islands, which are technically not part of the U.K. – and thus not part of the Brexit deal – but rather are autonomous, self-governing “crown dependencies” that negotiate their own terms on fishing. In their waters, the current terms favor newer boats: those that sailed between 2017 and 2019. Just 41 licenses for French boats have thus far been granted there, which spurred the May dispute and continues to anger the French.

“Up until now, we’ve always shared the channel waters with the English, but I’ve lost my access to Jersey for the first time in 20 years,” says Jérôme Delauney, who fishes for great scallops (or coquilles Saint Jacques) and whelk out of Cherbourg. “I had high hopes for Brexit.”

The fishing industry has long been a contentious part of Brexit, but the roots of the debate go back as far as the 1970s, when talks began on the U.K.’s entry into the European Union. Then, as in now, the fishing industry represented only a small fraction of the economy – less than 1% in the EU as a whole. But as the late Sir Con O’Neill, the U.K. chief negotiator, wrote about the 1972 EU talks, “the question of fisheries was economic peanuts, but political dynamite.”

“A lot of what Brexit was about was making Britain great again, ruling the waves,” says Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The great British maritime tradition, much like the French one, goes back hundreds of years. … Fishing taps into the whole national myth-making, but at the end of the day, it’s a trivial economic issue.”

The feeling on both sides of the channel is that the Brexit deal remains a work in progress and that it still doesn’t reflect the desires of each side.

“We thought we’d be thrown out of English waters completely and left alone with Jersey [one of the Channel Islands, just a dozen miles off the French coast], and it turned out to be quite the opposite,” says Marc Delahaye, director of the Normandy Regional Committee for Maritime Fishing (CRPMN), whose office faces the sprawling Cherbourg harbor. The Normandy region counts 2,200 fishers, and Mr. Delahaye estimates that every one job at sea represents two to three on land. “Our feeling in France is that London is now trying to renegotiate fishing within the Brexit deal to their advantage. But little by little, the situation is evolving.”

Britons, too, fear the other side taking advantage. The majority of vessels registered in England are owned by foreign companies in the EU that often take home annual catches worth as much as £160 million ($225 million).

A private path to cooperation?

While there is an EU framework in place that sets out fishing exclusion zones and quotas on total catch amounts, fishers across the channel have operated independently from governments for decades. A system of quota swapping has allowed fishers to work within the rules in a way that benefits both sides and ensures that European fishing remains sustainable for all countries.

Nowhere is that cooperation more evident than in the Mid-Channel Conference, which Mr. Portus of the SWFPO launched 30 years ago. Once a year, fishers from across Europe meet up to find ways to “avoid treading on each other’s toes” and make sure EU regulations are mutually beneficial. But under Brexit regulations, international swaps for quotas ended in January of this year, potentially thwarting future on-the-ground cooperation between the British and French.

“[Our system] worked successfully with no government involvement whatsoever for over 30 years, and as a result there is an element of harmony between the trawlermen of Holland, Germany, France, and the U.K.,” says Mr. Portus. “We’ve avoided conflict between [fishers] from the U.K. and the Channel Islands and the French, equally.”

This year, because of the pandemic, the conference couldn’t go ahead. But it still represents an opportunity for French and British fishers to work together in the coming years, despite what the Brexit deal may bring.

The zone between France and the U.K. will necessarily maintain a certain strategic importance for the industry – over 100 species of fish straddle EU-U.K. waters. And there is a sense of solidarity among fishers on both sides of the channel that this small but thriving industry is one worth fighting for.

“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 at the offices of the Armement Cherbourgeois, while her husband, David, offloads crates of whiting and haddock from their Maranatha II trawler down at the dock.

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


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