Barrie Deas: Scallop wars a skirmish compared to bigger game of Brexit

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The recent clashes in the Channel between UK and French fishing vessels over scallop grounds highlight a number of important issues.

The most important of these is that, whatever the rights and wrongs of disputes over fishing rights, it is never permissible to resort to intimidation and violence. There have been many fishing disputes in the past and doubtless there will be many in the future.

French and British boats clashed earlier this week in video captured by France 3.

French and British boats clashed earlier this week in video captured by France 3.

The correct place to resolve these is around the table, not on the high seas using flares, bottles stones and shackles to intimidate crews. Our vessels were forced to withdraw from the disputed area as skippers feared for the welfare of their crews.

The issues this week led us to raise the matter with the British government. We asked for protection for our vessels, which were fishing legitimately as part of their work in the UK scallop industry, which is worth £120m and supports 1,350 jobs.

While the clashes off the coast of Normandy have made headlines around the world, it is worth noting that every day of the week many French fishing vessels fish within UK waters, sometimes as close as six miles from the coast, much to the annoyance of British fishermen.

On many occasions, UK fishermen have been tied up, quotas exhausted, as French vessels with their much more generous allocations have continued to fish in sight of land. The French share of Channel cod is 84 per cent. The UK share is nine per cent.

This has been intensely frustrating but at no time have British fishermen resorted to intimidating or violent tactics.

Only last week, French trawlers - not for the first time - towed away crab pots set Cornish fishermen only eight miles from the UK coast. This provocation was met with fury and protests by our fishermen but also restraint.

The UK’s departure from the European Union, and therefore from the Common Fisheries Policy, will be a game changer.

It is true, as the local French fishermen engaged in the Baie de Seine dispute claim, that after Brexit UK vessels will have no longer have an automatic right of access to fish in this area because it is located within the French Exclusive Economic Zone.

Their French colleagues along the coast will not, however, miss the much bigger implication.

As the UK will (automatically) become an independent coastal state when the UK leaves the EU, French vessels will no longer have an automatic right to fish in the UK Exclusive Economic Zone.

As the European fleets currently catch around six times as much in UK waters as UK vessels catch in EU waters, they rightly understand that the writing is on the wall for the grossly asymmetrical arrangements that have existed under the Common Fisheries Policy.

Under UN law of the sea, the coastal state has responsibility for managing the resources within its EEZ and to determine who will be allowed to fish in its waters and under what conditions.

The EU will of course have the same rights to exclude or apply conditions to UK vessels fishing in French waters. But their pool of resources is much smaller and our effort in their waters by comparison is tiny.

The scallop wars last week were a local spasm that will have embarrassed the Government in Paris. France, and all of the other EU fishing nations, are intent on keeping something as close as possible to the status quo on access to fish in UK waters and quota shares. Their cause is not helped by a bring it on attitude within parts of the French industry.

Controlling access to our waters and rebalancing quota shares to more closely reflect the resources located within UK waters are a centrepiece within the Government’s White Paper of Fisheries.

Doubtless there will be a period of adjustment with more or less turbulence, but things will settle down. There is a legal obligation on all countries which share transboundary fish stocks, to cooperate in their management and sustainable exploitation.

The most likely future model for management of shared stocks is annual bilateral agreements – as currently happens between EU and Norway.

Safe harvesting rates are agreed on the basis of scientific advice and levels of access to fish in each other’s waters, along with quota shares are agreed during autumn negotiations each 
year.

The French authorities have primary responsibility for ensuring that there is no recurrence of the anarchic and troubling scenes witnessed last week.

If such events were to take place in UK waters, doubtless a police investigation would be under way and there is no dearth of evidence, supplied on video by the perpetrators themselves.

On the political front, a meeting is to be held in London next week involving Government officials and fishing representatives from both sides to try to resolve the dispute.

Scallops are a valuable resource and it is vital that they are fished only at sustainable levels.

There is no fundamental reason why in a spirit of reconciliation and compromise, a deal acceptable to both sides cannot be reached.

And in the meantime, the UK continues to head for the door, leaving the Common Fisheries Policy behind. This rather than the events of last week is the bigger game in play.

Barrie Deas is Chief Executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations.