Early last year Olivier Leprêtre signed a new lease on a €2.7m fishing boat. Then the UK voted to leave the EU — and the trawlerman from Boulogne-sur-Mer on the other side of the Channel is regretting his decision.
“If I’d known Brexit would happen, I never would have signed,” he says, gesturing towards the British coastline just 50km away. “It could crush us.”
His fears are shared across Boulogne, where fishermen worry that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU could spell the expulsion of foreign boats from British waters and the demise of France’s largest fishing port.
Their concern highlights how even a relatively small industry may prove to be a large sticking point in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. It also demonstrates what Britain hopes could be one of its biggest points of leverage in talks, with so many EU countries reliant on access to UK waters.
The fate of North Sea fish will be one of the most volatile political topics in the Brexit negotiations, with vessels from countries including the Netherlands, Spain and Denmark all eager to hang on to valuable fishing rights. But nowhere will be as badly affected by a ban on entry as France’s Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.
Fishermen have long had an outsized voice in French politics, turning to blockades and shock tactics when needed. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, knows all about their power: in 2009, as French agriculture and fisheries minister, he had to offer €4m in financial subsidies to fishermen in Nord-Pas-de-Calais after they blocked ports in a row over quotas.
At the moment, European vessels can fish almost anywhere in EU waters, provided they do not overstep strict quotas on the amount of fish they catch. But some British fishermen are demanding the UK prevent foreign boats from accessing UK waters after Brexit.
The UK group Fishing for Leave says that restricting foreign vessels will give British fishermen more than three times as many fish to catch as now. The group says this will “more than compensate for the comparatively smaller losses” caused by other EU countries restricting access to British vessels.
Such an action would be deeply damaging to Boulogne. Its larger trawlers are out at sea for five days, spending 80 per cent of their time in UK waters. “It’s all we’ve got really,” says Mr Leprêtre. “There will be bankruptcies if they do take back the waters, no doubt about it. And here, if fishing falls, everything falls.”
Boulogne’s smaller boats tend not to enter UK waters, preferring instead to catch sole and other flat fish that are unloaded daily at the Quai Gambetta and sold on the spot. But these boats will be affected by increased competition if the UK restricts access.
“All the larger boats will be forced to fish in French waters”, says Stéphane Pinto, whose 10m boat heads out to sea from the Quai Gambetta at 3am each day. “It’ll be a war on the water.”
This is not the first Anglo-French fishing dispute. In 2012 a disagreement dubbed la guerre de la coquille broke out, with French fishermen complaining that British boats were collecting scallops too close to the French shore in breach of international law. The people of Boulogne hope the British love of the shellfish will be a key card to play in any negotiation post-Brexit.
“It works both ways,” says Mr Leprêtre, who is also the head of the local fishing committee. “If tomorrow we say to all the [British] scallop fishers, ‘You can’t come and fish here any more’, they won’t be happy.”
The threat of losing access to scallops aside, most experts still say the UK has more to gain than lose from a renegotiated post-Brexit deal.
But it is far from certain that even if the UK did restrict access after Brexit, it could remove all foreign vessels. Citizens of other member states already use UK companies to buy fishing vessels, and thus quotas, to fish in British waters — a practice known as quota hopping. This could still occur after Brexit, although Professor Richard Barnes, research director at the University of Hull, says the UK may look to “tighten ownership or landing requirements” for such boats.
The New Economics Foundation, a think-tank, says the UK should be wary of overplaying its hand in negotiations because it might be difficult for the UK industry to reconfigure itself to take advantage of greater access to British waters.
“From fishing gear to processing plants to national tastes — it would take decades to reverse this process of specialisation and for each nation to start effectively fishing the diversity of species they catch closer to shore,” the foundation said in a letter to the House of Lords.
And while the UK might wish to give more opportunities to its fishing fleet, its fish processing industry is worth far more and relies heavily on imports as part of its international trade. EU-27 negotiators may demand continued access to UK waters for this trade to continue.
In Boulogne, while the locals are hoping the UK will not shut off its borders, many say they understand the desire of UK fishermen to leave the EU. “It penalises the poor, and it’s breaking them,” Antoine Golliot, a local councillor for the Front National, the far-right party of Marine Le Pen, said of the EU’s fishing policy.
Dutch and Spanish boats are fishing heavily in French zones, Mr Golliot says. Establishing control over local waters “could simplify certain things — a bit less technocratic and a bit more territorial”. .
Nonetheless, such a system would drastically reduce the potential catches on offer for Boulogne’s fleet. “For lots of the fishermen, there’s one thing on their mind, and that’s Brussels and its regulations,” said Mr Leprêtre. “But I’m not sure everyone understands just what impact Brexit could have.”