Derek Meredith watches the calm, sunny waters of the English Channel, shaking his head. “It’s total anarchy there,” he says.
Mr Meredith is a British fisherman from Brixham, England, who searches for scallops near the French coast, and he says his boat has been regularly attacked by French vessels in recent years. He says he was the target of flares, stones and homemade incendiary bombs during clashes off 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 Channel, Sophie and David Leroy manage five fishing trawlers through their company, Armement Cherbourgeois. And they also feel under siege. Over the past two years, they have found photos of their trawlers on social media posted by Brixham-based fishermen with black targets overlaid and the message ‘Sinking their boats’.
Why we wrote this
“I was shocked by the aggressiveness towards fishermen and women,” says Ms. Leroy, CEO of Armament Cherbourgeois, which contributes 60% of the fish supply in Cherbourg. She and her husband come from fishing families and have dedicated their lives to the industry. “They don’t realize that there are human lives at stake.”
The past year has been marked by violent clashes at sea between fishermen, first in the French port city of Boulogne-sur-Mer in April, then in the Channel Islands in May, as lawmakers prepared the arrangements. for 2021. The fishing industry was a major sticking point in Brexit talks, with British fishermen demanding free access to their own waters and the French claiming historic rights to British fishing grounds – where it is find the majority of fish.But despite the outbreaks, the majority of British and French fishermen say they want to find common ground for the good of all. For decades, the two sides worked together regardless of government involvement to ensure that quotas and fishing rights were fair to all parties. While they strive to preserve the livelihoods of their national coastal communities, they also strive to preserve the integrity and sustainability of their joint fishing industry for years to come.
“It’s usually the bureaucracy that puts people on opposite sides; those sitting behind desks who know nothing about the practicalities of fishing, ”says Jim Portus, Managing Director of the South Western Fish Producer Organization (SWFPO) and former Fisheries Protection Officer at the UK Department of Agriculture, Fishing and Food. “But I have worked with the French for decades on transferring quotas from one country to another, so that if we had opportunities that the French wanted or had opportunities that we needed, we could make deals. We’ve done it easily, year after 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 the small inner harbor of Brixham, where fishing boats dried up between the tides, the harbor grew steadily and by the second half of the 19th century the British fleet numbered more than 3,000 ships.While now it’s also a hot spot for hip ex-Londoners looking for a slower pace of life and crystal-clear 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 24/7 operation that exports to Belgium, the Netherlands and France, as well as the UK. The fishermen here – who have largely voted in favor of Brexit – say the Brexit deal has created more paperwork and hassle for the industry.
“In the first four or five months [since Brexit became official] I would say there are still problems, ”says Barry Young, managing director of Brixham Trawler Agents, which operates the market, a cooperative owned by fishermen. In a white coat in a noisy market, he checks the freshly caught fish wrapped in crates filled with ice. “We are really behind our British fishermen at 110%. “
Like Mr Young, many UK fishermen hoped the Brexit deal would grant them free access to UK waters. But instead, access is largely based on historical presence in the area – boats must prove they fished there between 2012 and 2016.
The Channel Islands further complicate matters, which are technically not part of the UK – and therefore not part of the Brexit deal – but are rather self-governing, self-governing ‘crown dependencies’ that negotiate their own terms. fishing. In their waters, current conditions favor more recent boats: those which sailed between 2017 and 2019. Only 41 French boat licenses have been granted there so far, which sparked the May conflict and continues to irritate the French.“Until now, we have always shared the waters of the channel with the English, but I lost my access to Jersey for the first time in 20 years,” says Jérôme Delauney, who fishes for scallops. and leave Cherbourg. “I had high hopes for Brexit. “
The fishing industry has long been a controversial part of Brexit, but the roots of the debate go back to the 1970s, when discussions began over the UK’s entry into the European Union. Then, as 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 UK’s chief negotiator, wrote of the 1972 EU talks, “the fisheries issue was an economic peanut, but a political dynamite” .
“Much of the purpose of Brexit was to make Britain great again, to ride the waves,” said Nick Witney, senior policy researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The great British maritime tradition, like the French tradition, dates back hundreds of years. … Fishing taps into all of the fabricating national myths, but in the end, it’s a trivial economic question.
The feeling on both sides of the Channel is that the Brexit deal remains a work in progress and still does not reflect the wishes of either side.“We thought we would be completely kicked 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 quite the opposite, ”explains Marc Delahaye, director of the Normandy Regional Committee for Maritime Fisheries (CRPMN), whose office faces the sprawling harbor of Cherbourg. The Normandy region has 2,200 fishermen and Mr. Delahaye estimates that each job at sea represents two to three on land. “Our feeling in France is that London is now trying to renegotiate the fishery under the Brexit deal to their advantage. But little by little, the situation is changing.
The British, too, fear that the other side will benefit. The majority of vessels registered in England are owned by foreign companies in the EU which often report annual catches worth up to 160 million pounds sterling (225 million dollars).
A private path to cooperation?
Although there is a European framework that defines fishing exclusion zones and quotas on total quantities caught, fishermen across the Channel have operated independently of governments for decades. A quota trading system has allowed fishermen to work within the rules in a way that benefits both parties and ensures that European fisheries remain sustainable for all countries.Nowhere is this cooperation more evident than at the Mid-Channel Conference, which Mr. Portus of SWFPO launched 30 years ago. Once a year, fishermen from all over Europe come together to find ways to ‘avoid stepping on each other’s feet’ and to ensure that EU regulations are mutually beneficial. But under Brexit regulations, international quota trading ended in January of this year, potentially thwarting future cooperation on the ground between the British and the French.
« [Our system] has operated successfully without any government involvement for over 30 years, and as a result there is an element of harmony between the trawlers from Holland, Germany, France and the UK, ”said Mr. Portus . “We have avoided conflicts between [fishers] the United Kingdom and the Channel Islands and the French, in equal parts.
This year, due to the pandemic, the conference could not take place. But it still represents an opportunity for French and British fishermen to work together in the years to come, despite what the Brexit agreement can bring.The area between France and the UK will necessarily retain some strategic importance for the industry – more than 100 species of fish straddle EU-UK waters. And there is a sense of solidarity between fishermen on both sides of the Channel that this small but thriving industry deserves to fight for.
“People should especially not believe that the relationship between French and English fishermen and women is bad, because it is simply not true”, says Ms. Leroy in the offices of the Armament Cherbourgeois, while her husband , David, unloads crates of whiting and haddock from their trawler Maranatha II at the wharf.
“Fishing is my livelihood. It’s my life, ”she says. “Fortunately, I still have hope for the future of this industry. “