UK, France scallop wars flare up again as Brexit negotiations stall

Published on
September 9, 2020

When the long-running “scallop wars” between French and U.K. fishermen escalated in 2018, there was an inevitability about a sequel over access rights to the valuable scallop beds in the Baie de Seine, off the coast of Normandy in northern France.  

Now, Pascal Coquet, head of the scallop committee of the Comité National des Pêches Maritimes et des Elevages Marins (CNPMEM), warns that the scallop wars could soon resume, if the two sides fail to reach an agreement over access before the start of the new fishing season on 1 October.

The problems lie in the fact that U.K. vessels are allowed to operate in the same fishing areas as the French, but are not subject to the same management restrictions, which include day quotas, gear size, and no fishing on weekends. 

“If we accept the over-15-meter scallopers before October, then the Irish scallopers will come as well, eight large scallopers that catch 50 tons a week. That’s as much as a French scalloper catches in a month,” Coquet said. “We don’t want to see conflicts and we’ll do everything we can to avoid that situation. There’s only one condition we’re asking for, which is the 1 October opening date for the season.

The French side is said to be amenable to renewing the agreement reached a year ago on reciprocal access to scallops and allocation of kilowatt (kW) days of effort. This is calculated by multiplying a vessel’s number of days at sea by its engine power.

According to Scottish White Fish Producers Organisation CEO Mike Park, U.K. vessels gearing up in port in readiness for the Baie de Seine, have been told by government officials to wait until the French boats have had a couple of weeks at the fishery before joining in.

“The U.K. scallop fleet is no longer dependent on securing additional effort from France to maintain a year-long fishery, because the reduction in activity during the COVID-19 pandemic means that there is more than enough kW days in the system,” he told SeafoodSource. “That said, there is also a wish from DEFRA and other administrations for the U.K. scallop fleet to avoid entering into a situation where conflict may arise.”

The 2018 spat saw many harsh words exchanged, boats physically clash in the English channel, and damage sustained by the U.K. fleet. There were reports the French boats, which outnumbered the Scottish and English vessels seven to one, also hurled rocks and smoke bombs during the confrontation.

“All-in-all this is a tense situation that needs to be resolved so that conflict can be avoided.  There is enough tension in the Brexit negotiations without the visuals of at sea battles over scallops,” Park said.

Fishing at center of U.K.-E.U. Brexit talks

As Brexit trade talks between the U.K. and the European Union draw towards a conclusion, tempers are running high over fishing rights. The talks follow the U.K.’s departure from the E.U. on 31 January, 2020, which was followed by an 11-month transition period. During this time, the U.K. remains bound by E.U. rules, including the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

From 1 January, 2021 , the U.K. will become an independent coastal state like Norway, and regain control its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which stretches up to 200 nautical miles into the North Atlantic. Within the E.U., the EEZs of all member-countries are managed jointly as a common resource.

The E.U. wants a fair deal on fisheries access for its boats, and has put fisheries at the heart of the negotiations for a free trade agreement with the U.K. Talks are not going well, as the U.K. insists that any fisheries agreement must be based on the understanding that "British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats.”

The E.U.'s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has acknowledged that the E.U.'s current position on fishing will have to change, but he is under pressure from France and Spain, which have large fishing fleets, and the Netherlands, which relies on fishing in the North Sea, not to compromise.

French fishermen have threatened action if no agreement on fisheries access is reached, and the U.K. has a hard Brexit date looming. They fear that if European fishermen are excluded from U.K. waters, then fishing effort will shift to French waters, and over-exploit the stocks.

Their threats include banning every British-flagged vessel, regardless of ownership, and blockading ports to ensure that seafood from the U.K. is not allowed into Europe. France is the gateway to Europe for much of the seafood transported by road, and the French authorities will be responsible for border inspections.

Their fishermen’s disquiet is causing more than a little concern amongst U.K. exporters. Irish companies, whose country will remain a part of the E.U., also export a large portion of their seafood through U.K. ports, and fear that their lorries will be subject to lengthy delays to cross the English Channel and affected by any French blockade.

In the event of a no-deal hard Brexit, the E.U. will automatically trade with the U.K. on World Trade Organization terms as of 1 January, which will invoke tariffs and value-added tax (VAT) on seafood products – terms that are less than favorable for U.K. exporters.

Photo courtesy of Woofit/Shutterstock

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