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Brexit: EU and UK in choppy waters over fishing rights

Gulls surround a fishing trawler as it works in the North Sea, off the coast of northeast England on January 21, 2020.
Gulls surround a fishing trawler as it works in the North Sea, off the coast of northeast England on January 21, 2020. © William Edwards, AFP
5 min

Fishing rights have been one of the main sticking points in Brexit negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom since March. Yet neither side appears ready to concede, despite mounting fears within the fishing industry over the consequences of a “no-deal” exit.

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With less than a week to go before a decisive European Council meeting on the future of EU-UK relations, it looks as though ongoing tensions over fishing rights could threaten to scupper an eventual agreement.

“If we want a deal, we need to reach an agreement on fishing. We need a compromise that we could float to the United Kingdom as part of a total agreement,” Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said on Wednesday.

The issue is of particular importance to a handful of EU member states, including France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Denmark.

The EU initially hoped to maintain access to British waters — which have an abundance of fish — post-Brexit transition, which ends on December 31, 2020. But the United Kingdom wants to limit access and renegotiate fishing rights every year, a point the EU has refused to cede.

Although the fishing industry represents just 0.1 percent of the United Kingdom’s GDP, the British government has used it as leverage in negotiations, holding it up as a symbol of the possible effects of Brexit.

An uncertain future

Fishermen in the northern French town of Boulogne-sur-Mer are particularly worried about the deal. Home to France’s largest fishing port, Brexit is on everyone’s mind there. 

“I spent all of last week in English waters. If there’s a ‘no deal’, I won’t be able to go there anymore,” fisherman Pierre Leprêtre told AFP.

Leprêtre explained that 70 to 80 percent of his income comes from fish caught in British waters. “If we can’t go fishing [there], we might as well close up shop,” he said.

“The entire French coast is a fish nursery area. As the fish grow, they head out to sea, which is why we fish in British waters: we want to catch adult fish,” Leprêtre said.

The scientific community has largely agreed with Leprêtre’s assessment of the situation, explaining that it is a common phenomenon in the North Sea, a shallow stretch of the Atlantic Ocean that separates the British isles and mainland Europe.

“The south of the sea is not very deep, but very sandy, therefore many fish have the following cycle: the adults lay their eggs in the central or nothern waters, the eggs are then carried to the south of the North Sea and settle along the coast from France to as far as Denmark,” Clara Ulrich, deputy head of science at the French Institute for Ocean Science (Institut français de recherche pour l'exploitation de la mer or Ifremer), told AFP.

“When fish reach adulthood, they leave for the deeper, colder, more populated and oxygenated waters of the north. It also allows them to lay their eggs upstream of the current, that way the eggs can be transported to the friendlier southern waters of the North Sea,” she added.

According to Ulrich, it is a natural cycle that shows no sign of changing in the future. “For some species, climate change and overfishing have only accentuated this phenomenon,” she said. 

Such is the case for cod and flounder, two of the most common fish species in the North Sea.

“Other species, however, such as sole — which is more common in southern waters — or haddock and pollock — which are more common in the north — appear less imbalanced,” Ulrich said. 

Fears of ‘overexploiting resources’

Ulrich’s comments echoed the fears of many fishermen in France.

“If access to British waters is closed, everyone’s going to wind up on the French side, and there will be a major cohabitation problem,” Leprêtre said.

To avoid “overexploiting resources”, Leprêtre’s uncle, Olivier, who is director of a fishing committee in the northern Hauts-de-France region, suggested divvying up international waters until another solution can be found.

“[In the event of a no-deal Brexit], I think it’s only fair that everyone sticks to their own waters until future relations can be negotiated,” Olivier Leprêtre said. “That means, French waters for the French, Belgian waters for the Belgians, etc.”

In Boulogne-sur-Mer, there are already concerns over the growing appetite of Dutch fishermen, whom Pierre Leprêtre described as the “undertakers” of natural resources because of their obsession with “numbers, numbers and numbers”.

“The Dutch feel more at home than we do in Boulogne,” said one of Leprêtre’s deckhands, Christopher (who declined to give his last name). “Once they’ve fished everything in the Channel, then they’ll go somewhere else.”

In comparison, relations between French fishermen and their British peers have been relatively smooth.

“It works well on the whole. Well, we make sure that things work,” Leprêtre said. “We have WhatsApp groups [with the British], so they can tell us where their fishing spots are.”

That way, the French know which areas they should avoid, and where they are free to fish.

Longstanding ‘political dynamite’

Fishing rights have long been a longstanding source of tension between Europe and the United Kingdom. The issue first emerged as a stumbling block nearly 50 years ago, when the UK entered talks to join what was then known as the European Community (EC).

“Only eight hours after accession talks had begun on 30 June 1970, the British got an unwelcome surprise: the six EC members had agreed to have a common fisheries policy (CFP), hammering out a speedy deal that had eluded them for 12 years just as fish-rich Britain, Ireland, Denmark and Norway were knocking at the door,” the Guardian reported in a recent article on fishing rights.

Norway even went so far as to refuse entry into the bloc over fishing rights.

“The question of fisheries was economic peanuts, but political dynamite,” the late Sir Con O’Neill, UK’s chief negotiator at the time, wrote of the negotiations.

Nearly half a century later, it would appear little has changed.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

This article was translated from the original in French by Rachel Holman.

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