Whelk War One lasted a few days in May. Whelk War Two could be wider, longer and nastier.
France and Britain are quarrelling about fish again. They are already quarrelling about cross-Channel migration and Australian submarines.
There is a danger that the disputes will merge. There is a danger that Boris Johnson’s flailing and failing government, faced with fuel and food shortages, will seek to “busy giddy minds” (W. Shakespeare, Henry V) with French quarrels.
There is a danger that the French government – seven months from an election and angered by the submarine dispute – will relish a high-profile confrontation with Britain. French fishermen’s leaders – even pro-Macron members of the National Assembly – are talking about blockades of Calais and the Channel Tunnel.
What is going on? This is not just a re-run of the brief Jersey fish fight in May. It also involves boats from Boulogne and other northern French ports – much better placed to create a real crisis in Franco-British relations if they should sever or even partially block Britain’s cross-Channel trade with the continent.
This is not only a “whelk war” in Channel Islands waters but also a “sole war” and a “plaice war” along the Sussex, Kent and Essex coasts.
As part of the Brexit settlement last December, EU boats were allowed continued access to the UK exclusive economic zone up to 12 miles from the shoreline. Quotas were gradually to be reduced by around 25 percent over six years.
In the last dash to reach a settlement, Britain also agreed that a limited number of continental boats – mostly French and Belgian – should continue to fish (as they have for centuries) in some English and Channel Islands waters up to 6 miles from the coast.
Boats would be given licences if they could prove that they had fished in these waters in recent years. French ministers reassured their fishermen that this would be a “formality”.
Nine months later Britain is still denying licences to dozens of small French boats, under 12 meters long. The British and Jersey governments say the boats have failed to produce documentary proof of their fishing history. The French say they have handed over what they can but small boats are not equipped with the satellite tracking devices used by big boats.
French fishermen say they are being made hostage to other Franco-British or EU-British disputes about cross-Channel migrants or Northern Ireland. They say Britain is trying to claw back with excessive bureaucracy and ill-will part of its defeat on fisheries in the Brexit talks.
In May, a similar dispute led to a brief blockade of St Helier harbour in Jersey. Temporary licences were then issued by the Jersey government for French boats to carry on fishing within 6 miles of the island, mostly for whelks, scallops and other shellfish.
Jersey has issued new, permanent permits to 64 boats – rejecting requests for 105 others, either temporarily or permanently.
Some Norman and Breton fishermen say they regard this as a significant advance. Others are furious, calling on the French government to ban Jersey boats from landing fish in France (80 percent of their market) or demanding that Paris switch off the power cable from Normandy which provides most of Jersey’s electricity (but also that of Guernsey, with which France has no quarrel).
This time, however, there is also a second dispute – which could turn out to be far more serious. The British government has provided only some of the licences requested by fishermen from Northern French ports to cast their nets and lines within 6 miles of the English coast, mostly for flatfish like sole.
The approved licences have gone to big boats, which can prove their movements through satellite tracking records. The smaller boats have scrappier, written records – most of which have been rejected by the UK government, without much explanation.
In other words, Britain is allowing in the big and powerful boats but banning the small, family-run boats which do much less damage to the maritime environment.
Are some of the small French boat skippers lying about their fishing history? One or two maybe. But the number of boats applying is in line with the fishing pattern established for decades in both the eastern Channel and the waters around Jersey.
Guernsey has taken a more cooperative approach. Temporary licences will be rolled over until the end of the year when final decisions will be made. The Guernsey government says that its priority is continuing good relations with its giant French neighbour.
One of the most sensible comments on this dispute comes from Brian Murphy of the Transmanche Development Group (an initiative to improve local trade between southern England, the Channel Islands, Brittany and Normandy). He told the Jersey Evening Post that the quarrel could be resolved easily if fishermen on both sides got together. The problems, he said, are caused by bureaucratic-political point-scoring in St Helier or London or Paris or Brussels.
“Some of those Norman fishermen have clearly been fishing in Jersey waters but a lot of them have not been doing the paperwork and cannot prove that they have been fishing there regularly,” he said. “Many Jersey fishermen know who they are…They could just say, ‘This is Jean-Pierre, who has fished here for years.’”
That might be a little harder in the eastern Channel where relations between French and English fishermen are not so good. The point remains valid. With common-sense and goodwill this dispute – trivial in the grander scheme of things but not to those involved – could be cleared up in an afternoon.
With Boris Johnson in power and the UK tabloids baying for Brexit victories, where can we find a quota of commonsense and goodwill in Anglo-French relations?