No-deal risks triggering a European fishing war with the French pitted against a mainly Dutch armada competing for dwindling stocks if shut out of UK waters, Gallic fishing bosses have warned.
France this week threatened to veto post-Brexit trade talks over fishing rights and the issue remains one of the main bones of contention that have stymied a deal, along with so-called level playing provisions.
With no deal in sight, Olivier Le Prêtre, head of the Hauts-de-France fishing council – whose small boats fish 70 per cent of their catch in UK waters – said he feared the French would be overrun by European rivals if the UK cut them out of theirs.
“If it was only French fishermen in French waters, then no-deal might be ok but we have the Belgians, the Dutch to contend with,” he told the Telegraph.
“If they all end up in French waters, there is a risk of overfishing and in a few months we’ll annihilate stocks.”
The Dutch, he claimed, were the villains of the piece.
“This is a nation that is exterminating fish. They have bought up the European fleet, they fish to excess. We all know full well that if we exterminate the fish they won’t come back ever again,” he said.
Dimitri Rogoff, president of the regional Normandy fishing committee, agreed the Dutch posed problem.
“They practice what I would call a scorched-earth policy: when there is nothing left, they look elsewhere. We saw it with electric fishing. That cannot sit with our fishermen who fish locally and don’t look elsewhere when nothing’s left,” he warned.
“At the moment they fish all over the Channel, in French and English waters,” he said. But with the advent of Brexit, and no fishing deal in sight, he fears “a build-up of these giants on the French side because the English won’t let them in anymore.”
“They have trawlers that are 30 to 40 metres long, much bigger than French boats so it creates rivalry. It will be explosive. It’ll end in a punch-up between Europeans and that’s unbearable. A political choice has to be made and it’s urgent,” he said.
The warnings came as fishermen protested in Fécamp this week with NGOs against the presence of eight massive, mainly Dutch-owned trawlers currently fishing 26 miles off the coast. According to Pleine Mer and Sea Shepherd, two NGOs representing small-scale local fishing, the boats can catch 200 tons of fish in one night – the annual catch of four small French fishing boats.
Like in the UK, the Dutch have bought up French fishing companies, like France Pélagique, they said.
With these they “have made a grab on French quotas”, said Thibault Josse of Pleine Mer.
“We don’t fish or walk on small fishermen’s toes, it’s not true,” France Pélagique boss Geoffroy Dhellemmes told France 3.
“This anger and this situation of concern is more linked to Brexit than our profession.”
“I don’t really understand this fear of artisan fishermen. I find it vulgar and unjustified,” he went on.
Mr Rogoff said that the French government was keeping quiet about the brewing row for now so as not to rock the boat during Brexit talks.
“There is strong lobbying by the Dutch towards France, which doesn’t want to fall out with their ‘allies’ over Brexit,” he said.
French fishing representatives said they did not want to end up with a situation like in the UK, where half of England’s fishing quota is currently in foreign hands.
Some £160m worth of England’s fishing quota is in the hands of vessels owned by companies based in Iceland, Spain and the Netherlands, according to BBC research.
That amounts to 130,000 tonnes of fish a year and 55% of the quota’s annual value in 2019.
“The Dutch fleet relocated to Britain some time ago as we have see lots of big Dutch-owned seine boats with UK flags in recent years,” said Mr Rogoff. “Now they have started operating boats with German flags, the likes of which have not been seen in the Channel since the Second World War,” he said.
Mr Le Prêtre said: “The British fishermen talk about reclaiming their waters and yet their government has allowed its fishing industry to be sold off. I don’t get it.”
However, that situation may change. This week, the UK told European Commission negotiators that after Brexit, fishing boats must be majority British owned to benefit from the larger catch in UK waters.