France, UK escalate fight over post-Brexit fishing access

The row between the United Kingdom and France over post-Brexit fishing rights continues to escalate.

On Thursday, 6 May, dozens of French fishing boats set off for Saint Helier, the main port of Jersey, a British Crown dependency, threatening to mount a blockade. In response, the U.K. sent two Royal Navy gunboats to keep watch. Fishing crews set off flares, sounded their horns and displayed banners. The two sides currently remain in a stand-off, and thus far, the protest has remained peaceful.

Last week, in a public statement, French Maritime Minister Annick Girardin threatened to cut off power supplied through underwater cables strung from France to Jersey in retaliation for blocked fishing access to French fishing vessels. French fishermen have accused the U.K. of delaying the issuance of licenses to small French vessels. The licenses are required as part of the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union, but French fishermen claim that almost 80 percent of the French fleet in the northern Hauts-de-France region have been waiting since the beginning of the year for their applications to be processed. In a 23 April protest, around 80 fishermen set off flares and blockaded lorries arriving in Boulogne-sur-Mer, which is Europe's largest seafood processing center.

According to both the Jersey government and French fishermen, the issue lies in the need for the fishermen to verify their historic right to fish by producing electronic evidence of fishing activity from 2012 to 2016.  This is not a problem for larger boats, but the majority of small vessels were not equipped with tracking devices that would give them proof of their historical fishing records during the period in question.

On Friday, 30 April, the U.K. authorized 41 French vessels to fish in the waters off Jersey, but according to Girardin, the regulations contained new demands "which were not arranged or discussed, and which we were not notified about,” she told the French parliament.

The new measures set out "where the ships can go and cannot go," as well as the number of days the fishermen can spend at sea and what machinery they can use, the ministry claimed in a release.

"This is absolutely unacceptable,” Girardin said. “We are ready to use … retaliatory measures. I am sorry it has come to this. We will do so if we have to.”

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to the chief minister of Jersey, Senator John Le Fondré, and Jersey Minister of External Affairs Ian Gorst about the prospect of a blockade of Saint Helier on the evening of Wednesday, 5 May. In the call, Johnson and Le Fondré stressed the urgent need for a deescalation in tensions and for dialogue between Jersey and France on fishing access, according to a statement from Johnson's office. They also agreed the U.K. and Jersey governments would continue to work closely on this issue.

Johnson underlined his “unwavering support” for Jersey, and said that any blockade would be “completely unjustified.” He advised that the two offshore patrol vessels had been sent to monitor the situation.

Last week, French Europe Minister Clément Beaune indicated that the E.U. could respond with its own reprisals in the financial services sector if the U.K. did not stop blocking fishing rights.

According to Gorst, an elected member of the States Assembly and the former chief minister of Jersey, the government of Jersey has acted on legal advice and in good faith. It must issue licenses in line with the U.K.-E.U. Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) and in line with the data submitted by the French and E.U. authorities, Gorst said.

“We are entering a new era and it takes time for all to adjust. Jersey has consistently shown its commitment to finding a smooth transition to the new regime … by creating an interim arrangement to allow French fishermen time to submit their data. That commitment remains,” Gorst said in a statement.

Meanwhile, a row over a ban on sales of live bivalve molluscs from U.K.'s so-called "class B" waters into the E.U. continues, with shellfish farmers still unable to access their pre-Brexit markets. The U.K. maintain the trade is legal, but the E.U. has said such trade has never been permitted with third-countries, a status the U.K. now holds. A number of mussel, oyster, and cockle businesses are on the point of collapse, having had no sales since early January 2021.

Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association Mike Park told SeafoodSource “any action that hampers the flow of seafood to the market is nothing other than reckless at this time.”

“It will inevitably create uncertainty in getting the end product to the customer, which reduces the price for our fishermen at auction,” Park said.

Photo courtesy of olrat/Shutterstock


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