Scallop Skirmish. A taste of things to come?

Earlier this week, a video emerged of French fishers attacking UK vessels harvesting scallops in the Baie de la Seine, off the coast of Normandy. Tensions in these waters have been mounting for fifteen years, partially kept in balance thus far by EU law and an unwritten agreement between the two countries. Yet, this clash could seem a drop in the ocean compared to the problems and disputes that Brexit might bring.

The scallop grounds in the Bay of Seine offer some of the richest harvests in the world and the British have been fishing there since before we joined the EU. Today, their right to fish in these waters is protected by laws agreed at EU level, which they will no longer be able to rely on if the UK leaves next year.

In fact, post Brexit, UK vessels will not be able to claim access to these waters through historic rights. This is entirely the fault of the British government, who last year announced that the UK would withdraw from the London Fisheries Convention. This agreement, signed by 12 European countries back in 1964, protects the historic right to fish in the waters of the other signatories. Environment Secretary Michael Gove withdrew in order to prevent other EU vessels from fishing in UK waters, neglecting to consider the same restrictions could be applied vice versa to UK vessels fishing in waters of the other signatories.

This week’s so-called ‘Scallop Skirmishes’ also highlight that disputes over quotas are more a case of big industrial vessels taking quota away from local fleets, rather than one country using up the resources of another. In the Baie de la Seine, French vessels face a closed season for scallop fishing, introduced by their government to allow for the recovery of stock. The UK agreed to cooperate, and banned larger boats from fishing in these waters until October, while continuing to allow small vessels all year round.

Yet, as big industrial vessels hoard the majority of UK quota (allocated to them by the government), more and more fishers with smaller vessels have have come to the Bay of Seine, as scallop fishing is limited by boat size, not quota. As a result of this increase, the French requested that the British fleet also abide by the closed season, to protect stocks. However, with no legal enforcement behind it, the smaller British fishers, already feeling squeezed out by the larger industrial vessels elsewhere, ignored the French request. This in turn angered some of the the French fishers and led to the ugly confrontations we have seen this week.

The blame should really be placed squarely on the UK’s Conservative government, whose poor management of quota distribution has allowed the ‘leasing’ of quotas by big companies and caused discontent among smaller fishing communities. This practice is unlikely to change after Brexit, despite the hackneyed nationalistic flag waving of many pro-Brexit politicians who claim the UK will ‘take back control of our waters’, and Nigel Farage’s stunts on the Thames.

Finally, it is worth bearing in mind that should Britain leave the EU with no-deal, or with any deal that limits our access to EU markets (as is the intention of the Tory government in wanting to leave the customs union and the single market), the scallop trade will be hard pushed to survive. At present, 85% of British shellfish exports go to the EU, with a total value of around £432 million. The shellfish industry is the largest element in the UK fishing and processing sector, supporting over 8,000 full-time equivalent jobs. If World Trade Organisation tariffs are introduced, this would lead to additional costs of £41 million to the sector annually, equivalent to 8.7% of the industry’s total turnover. Furthermore, the inevitable delays caused by customs checks and non-tariff barriers such as hygiene checks (if our – currently common – rules diverge), would make the supply chain far less reliable, especially damaging for products where freshness is paramount.

Anyone who believes that Brexit might mitigate any of these tensions would be wrong; when UK fishers cannot legally access EU waters, and vice versa, tensions will grow. When it becomes apparent that Brexit will not bring more quota to smaller fleets, discontent will rise. When we can no longer have friction-free trade with the EU because posturing by the UK government has damaged chances of a deal, the industry, not the politicians, will suffer.

With less than seven months until the projected Brexit date, the government needs to be honest with itself and recognise that coastal fishing communities, many of whom voted to leave in 2016, could be ruined by either a no-deal Brexit or a deal that imposes customs barriers and tariffs where now there are none. Otherwise this week’s skirmish may come to be seen as just the opening salvo in a long-running and ugly maritime campaign.

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