The complex issues at the heart of the ‘scallop wars’

Skirmishes between British and French scallop fishermen that broke out last week are the continuation of an ongoing dispute over water access and fish stocks. Molly Scott Cato MEP examines the implications of the ‘scallop wars’ for Brexit and for the environment.

Fishing trawler surrounded by seagulls
Fishing trawler surrounded by seagulls

Image: Ed Dunens / Creative Commons 

Molly Scott Cato

 As tedious pictures of Farage throwing fish off various trawlers have infested our screens over the past couple of years, I have feared for the fishermen as well as for these poor fish. I’m also old enough to remember the Cod Wars of the 1970s, the last time we based our approach to access to waters on aggression rather than negotiation. Fishing communities believe in Brexit and have put their faith in Brexiteers, but the battle over scallops that broke out off the French coast last week indicates that they are likely to be disappointed.
I represent some of the fishermen whose boats were attacked by French trawlermen. It is of course totally unacceptable for people engaged in their legal business to be subject to intimidation in this way. But the decision by the UK to extract itself from the sensitive process of negotiation under the Common Fisheries Policy, and the triumphant demands to take back control of our waters, have always been likely to increase tensions with fishing boats that are routinely encountered in European waters.
Scallops are a small but extremely valuable proportion of UK landings, valued at £74 million in 2016. Much of this catch is exported to France, which is why access to markets is so much more important to the fishermen I represent than access to waters. This is especially so with a product that has such a short shelf-life and needs to reach the final consumer rapidly, not being tied down by customs or other checks at borders.
French fishermen reacted with anger as they felt that it was ‘their own fish’ caught ‘in their waters’ and then sold ‘in their shops’. But there is added antagonism caused by the fact that French fishermen are only allowed to catch scallops in the sensitive Baie de Seine, where the skirmish took place, between October and May. This is so as to protect stocks.
Unlike Farage, who actually sits on the fisheries committee but has famously attended only one of 42 meetings, I’m not prepared to sell our fishing communities answers that are simple but wrong; nor am I willing to sell out the fish themselves, especially when stocks are vital to the long term health of the fishing industry.
I know that the fishery in South West England has expanded since we joined the EU. Boats from Newlyn and Brixham head out beyond British waters to catch shellfish that are much more popular in Spain and France than in the UK. Fishing communities have been guaranteed by fishing minister George Eustice that they can have their cake and eat it. Who will fishermen blame when they find that this is just another Brexit lie?
As a Green MEP, I think the people who voted for me also expect me to consider the interests of the scallops themselves. Here the consideration is not only the essential ban on fishing during the breeding season but the disaster of bottom trawling which devastates the ecosystem of the sea-bed. If Michael Gove’s heart goes out to the fishermen, as he tweeted, can his heart also be in the right place on environmental protection?
Scottish environmentalist and writer Alastair McIntosh likened scallop dredging to ‘using a combine harvester to pick apples’. He used to be a boatman to divers who witnessed the carnage in the seabed at first hand. What they saw was ‘mangled tortured sea life’. He believes the practice should be banned outright, and joins George Monbiot in recommending that we should not eat trawled scallops.
As with so many political issues, there are many conflicting interests at stake in the battle over scallops. While many issues are uncertain, one is simple: Brexit can only exacerbate these tensions and make the complex policy issue of fisheries more difficult to resolve.