Expert View

Brexit is uncharted waters for ‘scallop wars’ fishermen

by Andy Lebrecht | 31.08.2018

Andy Lebrecht is a former Director-General for Food and Farming at Defra and UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU.

The latest clashes between French and British scallop fishermen in the Baie de la Seine have led Environment Secretary Michael Gove to declare confidently that the British fishermen were fishing in accordance with their legal rights. He is correct, for the time being. Coming from an EU member state participating in the Common Fisheries Policy, UK fishermen have the right to fish in all EU waters (beyond 12 miles from the shore) and to export their catches duty free anywhere in the EU.

But what will be the position after Brexit? This will depend on the outcome of negotiations. The EU are proposing a continuation of the status quo for catch quotas and reciprocal access to each other’s waters, and are offering tariff-free trade in exchange. Were the UK government to accept this, British scallop fishermen’s current advantageous position would remain intact.

However, under pressure from some parts of the UK fishing industry and the mantra of “taking control of UK waters”, the government rejects the EU’s approach. It insists that negotiations on fishing access to each other’s waters – and associated negotiations on catch quotas – should take place annually, with no prior arrangement. The hope is that, as EU fishermen catch more in UK waters than vice-versa, this would give the UK leverage to increase its share of catches. Under this model however, our scallop fishermen would not know from one year to the next whether they could fish in the Baie de la Seine or not.

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Perhaps more critically, the EU have indicated that without an agreement to maintain the status quo, UK exports of fishery products would be subject to import duties. So, whether or not fishermen had access to their traditional fishing grounds off the French or any other EU country’s coast, they would have to pay a significant (up to 20%) tariff to access the EU market. That could well make their operations uneconomic.

Given that the major part of the UK catch is exported, and 80% of that goes to the EU, this is a serious threat. Gove is on record saying there is no link between the issue of access to waters and tariffs. However that is clearly not how the EU sees things.

A further concern for fishers of scallops and other high-value shellfish in particular is that, in the absence of a UK-EU deal that avoids customs or other checks at the EU border, their products may never reach the market at all. Exported shellfish are usually live and need to reach the market as quickly as possible, as delays can result in deterioration or death of the shellfish. The Welsh Fishermen’s Association has warned that “people would start going out of business” after just four weeks if new customs checks and restrictions caused delays.

The impact of Brexit for the UK’s scallop fishermen, as for much of the fishing industry, is thus likely to be negative – especially if the government maintains its rejection of the EU’s proposals (or there is no deal) and EU import tariffs are imposed. But will it help to prevent further clashes at sea? That seems unlikely if large numbers of EU fishermen are excluded from fisheries they have legally operated in for the past 45 years and more.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “Brexit is uncharted waters for ‘scallop wars’ fishermen”

  • Dredging for scallops should be banned anyway. It is so destructive, killing almost everything on the sea bed. This destroys the habitat for weed, and therefore for all the small creatures in the weed, and the fish that would feed on them. It’s very short sighted.

  • The clashes in the Baie de la Seine are a frightening pointer to the environmental standards that the UK government is likely to descend to if left to its own devices. The dredging undertaken by the British boats is disastrous for the marine life that depends on the upper layer of the underwater land surface, and France has very responsibly determined that its own scallop fishermen should not catch scallops in the summer months to allow them to regenerate and remain sustainable. Under Michael Gove – despite his good reputation while in charge of Defra – the deal with France that kept our fishermen away over that same period has been allowed to lapse. Accordingly our boats are legally free to devastate a resource that could not survive if their practices are maintained. These are the standards and ethics of Trump.. Appalling and shameful.