EXPLAINED: Why are France and the UK fighting about fish?

Fish on sale at the market in Brittany, France
Fish on sale at the market in Brittany, France. Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP
It is so far a war conducted mostly in words, but the French government has threatened actions - so what exactly is the fishing dispute with the UK about?

Is this something to do with Brexit?

Yes, this relates to the trade deal agreed between the UK and the EU back in December. The deal mostly concerns post-Brexit trading agreements, standards and customs checks but it also concerns fishing.

The fishing aspect was slightly overlooked in coverage of the deal, which was reached just days before the Brexit transition period ended on January 1st 2021, because other aspects of trade are simply much more important for the economies of both the UK and the EU.

But fishing has a political importance, as well as obviously being important to people who make their living in the industry.

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See also on The Local:

ANALYSIS Why the new UK-France fishing row could get nasty

What does the deal say?

The principle of the agreement was that British and French fishermen should be able to continue working as they had before Brexit, although things will change in the future.

EU boats are allowed continued access to the UK exclusive economic zone (12 to 200 miles from the coast), with quotas gradually being reduced over the years to come. The UK government has granted 1,700 licences to UK boats to fish in these waters.

But the tension is over licences to operate in Britain’s fish-rich territorial waters, which lie 6-12 nautical miles from the coast, as well as the waters close to Jersey. The deal states that EU fishermen can continue to fish in these waters if they could prove that they had been fishing there in recent years.

However fishermen do need to apply for new licences to carry on fishing and this is where the trouble has erupted.

Licenses for French fishermen are issued either by London or by the self-governing crown dependencies of Jersey and Guernsey, depending on where they want to fish. Although the Channel Islands are not part of the UK they are crown dependencies and rely on London for security and foreign policy issues, so are involved in post-Brexit issues.

London has issued 100 licences to French boats for its territorial waters, while 75 have been rejected, according to figures from the beginning of October.

For Jersey, 111 permanent licences and 31 provisional licences have been issued, while 75 boats have been rejected.

The Treaty itself is vague on the point of ‘pre-established fishing patterns’ and does not specify what proof must be provided, or even if any proof is needed, but the UK has issued its own list of rules requiring French fishermen to submit proof of their fishing activity between 2012 and 2016.

The majority of the licence applications rejected appear to be smaller boats, many of which don’t have onboard satellite systems and have therefore struggled to provide the proof demanded of their pre-Brexit fishing patterns.

So the row is about 150 small fishing boats?

In essence yes, although it’s really about politics.

Paris is furious about what it sees as bad faith from UK authorities in refusing to grant the licences, which comes on top of a general frustration within the EU about the UK’s failure to fully implement the Brexit deal.

The French government is also under pressure to defend its fishing industry and probably has one eye on votes from the coastal communities in next year’s presidential elections.

The UK on the other hand is desperate to salvage a Brexit ‘win’ after making big promises to fishing communities about the benefits that Brexit would have for British fishermen, few of which have so far materialised.

So what now?

So far this has largely been a war of words, although a demo by annoyed French fishermen blockading the Jersey port of St Helier in May did lead to the UK sending a Navy gunboat.

But the French government is sounding increasingly irate and set a deadline of November 1st for the issue to be resolved, saying that if no progress is made then retaliatory measures would begin. These measures include blocking access to certain French fishing ports for British vessels and increasing checks on lorries travelling between France and the UK.

This deadline has now been pushed back after the UK’s Brexit minister accepted an invitation to come to Paris and hold further talks on November 4th. 

A meeting on the issue in Brussels is also scheduled for Friday, November 5th.


Member comments

  1. To my mind any threat or counter-threat outwith the subject in dispute merely weakens the argument of its maker, in that it introduces hot-headed emotion, irrelevance and probable worse trouble ahead.
    if parts of the Brexit fishing deal are unclear on the subject, then these are still for negotiation without table thumping and that is likely to involve compromises by all concerned participants.
    As to British fish, should we remember that something like 80% of British catches are exported ( ie. Britain wants just the 20%) and involves less than 2% of GB’s gross domestic product.
    As a Brit, I’d prefer to see GB leading the situation to a happy conclusion under agreeable terms.

  2. I suggest the reason that half the French fishing fleet are unable to provide “pre-Brexit fishing patterns” is not the lack of “onboard satellite systems”. All vessels have used GPS chart plotters for at least the last 20 years, the problem is that those digital “records” more than likely show they have been fishing illegally in British waters, hence a reluctance to hand them over…….

    1. As anyone who lives in France knows, if you want a permit to do anything, you must submit the correct documentation. Now, it seems, France finds it unfair that the UK and Jersey are applying the same standards.
      One can imagine the howls of protest if British authorities were to start impounding French fishing boats, which is a very good reason to begin doing exactly that.

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