Brexit fog blurs horizon for anxious Breton fishermen

In France's northwestern port of Guilvinec, most of the fishing boats are still in harbour after taking shelter from a ferocious winter storm that rocked the Atlantic coast.

Brexit fog blurs horizon for anxious Breton fishermen
Image: Fred Tanneau / AFP

The last-minute deal between the EU and Britain on their trading relationship now that London has left the bloc, which included European fishing rights in British waters, has perhaps saved the industry in France from even choppier waters.

But as they plan to put out to sea after January 1 when Britain will no longer be part of the EU single market, French fishermen complain they are still lacking full clarity on their future rights.

“We are getting ready to set sail, but we do not know where to,” Emmanuel Le Saint told AFP aboard his white and blue trawler, moored not far from the fish market of Le Guilvinec.

Le Guilvinec is France's third fishing port after Boulogne-sur-Mer in the north of the country and Lorient in the west.

“We do not really know if we will be going towards British or French” waters, he added, as his crew worked to refuel the vessel.”It's unclear, it's completely unclear,” he said, his hands buried in the pockets of his jeans as he stood in the port in the Finistere region of Brittany, fully exposed to the wrath of the Atlantic.

May have consequences

Fishermen are particularly worried about whether the British authorities will grant them the necessary licences in time from January 1 to enter their waters.

“Given that the English (fishermen) are themselves frustrated, they (the British authorities) are not going to do anything to make our life easier”, said Jacques Pichon, director of the La Houle group which has 10 trawlers and accounts for approximately 20 percent of operations at Guilvinec market.

“At first glance (the agreement) is less unfavourable than we could have feared,” he acknowledged. But he warned: “The fact that the British did not get everything they wanted, and that other European fishermen had to concede more than us in the agreement, may have consequences.”

Image: Valery Hache / AFP

Under the last-ditch agreement clinched after marathon talks on Christmas Eve, the EU will cede around 25 percent of the value of hauls fished in British waters by European fleets.

After a transition period of five-and-half years, rules governing mutual access to fishing zones will be negotiated annually.

French fishermen's group CNPMEM has already complained that annual renegotiation will hamper investment.

Ludovic Le Lay, head of the Hent Ar Bugale fleet, three of whose six boats regularly fish in British waters, expressed particular concern about the annual negotiations. Catch limits “can be changed from one year to the next”, he said, worrying about the impact of the agreement “going forwards”.

What will become of fishing?

For the French industry, fish caught in British waters account for 20 percent of the total annual value.

“It's a leap into the unknown in any case, because we are losing overall 25 percent of the value of the catches made in British waters,” said Soazig Le Gall-Palmer, head of the Bigouden group, which runs 11 boats.

Le Gall-Palmer, who heads a regional producer's organisation that groups 700 vessels, noted the fact that the reduction has not been “distributed equally between species and areas or between the nations of the European Union”.

Also concerned about the annual renegotiation, she said: “We will be in doubt every year. Every single year we will have to wait for the agreements.”

Veteran fisherman Thierry Monfort, just back from a two-week trip into Irish waters for Bigouden, said the new uncertainty was just another blow to the industry.

It is already being squeezed by environmental concerns about overfishing as well as recruitment problems, with fewer young people keen to enter the arduous profession.

“By 2026, I am going to be retired and it won't concern me,” said Monfort, referring to the year following the end of the fishing transition period. “With the restrictions on fish, on species, on everything, you wonder what will become of fishing”.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Amber alert: Travellers to France warned of another busy weekend at UK ports

A week after chaotic scenes and 6-hour queues at the port of Dover, the British motoring organisation the AA has issued an amber traffic warning, and says it expects cross-Channel ports to be very busy once again this weekend as holidaymakers head to France.

Amber alert: Travellers to France warned of another busy weekend at UK ports

The AA issued the amber warning on Thursday for the whole of the UK, the first time that it has issued this type of warning in advance.

Roads across the UK are predicted to be extremely busy due to a combination of holiday getaways, several large sporting events and a rail strike – but the organisation said that it expected traffic to once again be very heavy around the port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel terminal at Folkestone.

Last weekend there was gridlock in southern England and passengers heading to France enduring waits of more than six hours at Dover, and four hours at Folkestone.

The AA said that while it doesn’t expect quite this level of chaos to be repeated, congestion was still expected around Dover and Folkestone.

On Thursday ferry operator DFDS was advising passengers to allow two hours to get through check-in and border controls, while at Folkestone, the Channel Tunnel operators only said there was a “slightly longer than usual” wait for border controls.

In both cases, passengers who miss their booked train or ferry while in the queue will be accommodated on the next available crossing with no extra charge.

Last weekend was the big holiday ‘getaway’ weekend as schools broke up, and a technical fault meant that some of the French border control team were an hour late to work, adding to the chaos. 

But the underlying problems remain – including extra checks needed in the aftermath of Brexit, limited space for French passport control officers at Dover and long lorry queues on the motorway heading to Folkestone.

OPINION UK-France travel crisis will only be solved when the British get real about Brexit

The port of Dover expects 140,000 passengers, 45,000 cars and 18,000 freight vehicles between Thursday and Sunday, and queues were already starting to build on Thursday morning.