In August 2018, a conflict broke out in the English Channel between French and British fisherman, in a dispute that centered around environmental laws, French and British nationalism, and Brexit. It became known as “The Scallop Wars”.
Scallop fishermen photo from Wiki Commons
For decades, sea scallops from the English Channel have been a delicacy in France, and a fleet of British and French fishing boats have made their living by dredge-netting scallops along the coasts of both England and France. Under the terms of the European Union’s “Common Fisheries Policy”, both fleets were able to fish in each other’s waters and then export the scallops, which went almost entirely to French customers, without duties or taxes. The EU policy set yearly quotas for each fleet. As part of the effort to protect the fisheries and keep the harvest sustainable, French law banned scallop fishing within its 12-mile “Economic Exclusion Zone” from May to October, which was the breeding season for the scallops. Many of the scallop breeding grounds were located outside the 12-mile area and were not protected by the French law, but the British agreed to comply with the French policy and to not fish in these waters until November 1, when the breeding season was over and both fleets could begin fishing.
The joint policy agreement worked for many years. Then came Brexit.
The British fishing industry was one of the staunchest supporters of the effort to leave the EU. Britain’s coastal waters in the English Channel are rich fishing grounds, especially for the scallops, and many fishing boats, particularly from Scotland, made their living by selling scallops to customers in France. They felt that the quotas imposed upon them by the EU rules were unfairly limiting them, and also felt that the rules unfairly benefited the French boats who were allowed under the Common Fisheries Policy to fish in British waters. Taking a strong nationalist stance, the British fisheries argued that by leaving the EU, Britain could have complete control over its own scallop catch—which was three times bigger than the catch in French waters—and could make a better living by banning the French from fishing there, allowing themselves to catch and sell more scallops to France. Critics responded, however, by pointing out that the end of the EU rules under Brexit also meant that France could impose tariffs on British scallops, meaning that even if the British could take more scallops, it would become more difficult for them to market their catch to the huge French market.
In 2012, even before the Brexit vote, there was already open conflict. Fueled by nationalist opposition to the EU Common Fisheries rules, British fishing boats began netting scallops off the French coast during the breeding season, when both sides had already agreed not to fish in order to protect the scallops. The British boats were surrounded by French fisherman: during the six-hour standoff, the French accused the British of illegally fishing inside the French Exclusion Zone. After the dispute, an agreement was reached: English boats longer than ten meters would refrain from fishing in the scallop beds during the breeding season, while smaller boats would be allowed to take limited amounts year-round. The French boats would continue to remain out of the fishing grounds during the breeding season.
But in August 2018, after the Brexit process began, the conflict heated up again. British boats again entered French waters during the scallop breeding season, and were met by a fleet of French fishermen who threw rocks, smoke bombs and flares at them, ramming several boats and setting one on fire. The British fisheries argued that they had a right to fish where they wanted; the French Government argued that the ban on fishing was ecologically necessary to protect the scallops during spawning season in order to keep the harvest sustainable. In response, a new deal was reached: to protect the scallops, the smaller British boats would now also be banned from fishing during the breeding season, and the French Government would compensate them for the economic loss. Meanwhile, the French Navy announced that it would step in if there is another conflict on the high seas.
Despite the truce, however, the “Scallop War” will undoubtedly continue, fueled by nationalist pride on both sides, and by economic motives as both parties struggle with the uncertainties of what trade rules and tariffs will result from Brexit and what effects they will have on both fleets.