Brexit Leaves French Fishermen On The Hook

Sep 11, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 11:57 pm

France's busiest port, Boulougne-sur-Mer, sits just across the English Channel from Britain, in the Calais region.

Seagulls glide above scores of brightly painted boats docking to unload the catch of the day — mainly sole but also cod, roussette, crab and scallops.

It's all sold at a bustling seaside market where Marie-Laure Fontaine sells seafood from a fishing boat called Providence.

"Sole and cod and turbot, we get these all from British waters," Fontaine says. "And this is a worry."

Up to 80 percent of fish caught by fishermen here comes from British waters, which are about a two-hour boat ride away.

French fishermen have been nervous since Britain voted to leave the European Union last year. That's because when the divorce is final, the U.K. will also leave what's called the Common Fisheries Policy.

"After that, the U.K. will be an independent coastal state, like Norway or the Faroe Islands or Iceland," says Barrie Deas, chief executive of the U.K.'s National Federation Fishermen's Organisations. "The U.K. will determine its own fishing quotas and access arrangements. So I think it's realistic for the French to be worried."

And Jeremy Devogel, a 31-year-old fisherman from Boulogne-sur-Mer, is really worried.

He nets 70 percent of his catch in English waters.

"I've fished for 10 years and recently bought a bigger boat specifically to work in English waters and in rough seas," he says. "I'm more than 300,000 euros ($357,000) in debt."

He frowns as he lowers metal crates, just emptied of ray and sole, onto his new boat for the next day's catch

"On a scale of 1 to 10, my level of worry is a 10," he says.

Devogel waves hello to Stephane Pinto, 52, vice president of the regional fishing committee and owner of a fishing company.

"Eighty percent of our fish come from the British side, so that makes up 80 percent of our revenue as well," Pinto says. "Take that away, and the regional economy takes a big hit."

Pinto and his crew load the day's catch — mainly sole and roussette, a type of dogfish — onto a truck that they drive to a cavernous dock. There, they sort the fish by type and size into yard-long containers packed with ice.

The fish are sold at dawn the next morning. Restaurant owner Laurent Wacogne makes sure to get the freshest ones for his restaurant, La Plage.

"My philosophy is to follow the sea," he says. "It's very important to buy the fish in Boulogne. Most of that fish — the sole, the turbot, scallops, whitefish — that's all from British waters. But it is still local. Sea bass from Greece is nice, and it's available, but it's not local."

If the stock of local fish was drastically reduced after Brexit, he says, then he could go out of business.

Deas of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisation says he understands French concerns but "fish is a zero-sum game. The more they get, the less we get, and vice versa."

The east cost of England, he says, has seen a huge reduction of fishing fleets partly because of the Common Fisheries policy.

"EU fleets catch about four times as much in U.K. waters as U.K. vessels catch in EU waters," Deas says. "The most extreme example is eastern Channel cod, where the U.K. share of that cod quota was 9 percent and the French share is 84 percent."

But the British could find it tougher to sell their fish to the EU if there's what's called a "hard Brexit," where the U.K. gives up full access to the single market and full access of the customs union, says Christophe Collin, technical manager of Armement Bigouden, a fishing company in Le Guilvinec, western France.

"If this Brexit is a hard Brexit, we think that the European community will tax quite a lot the English product, the English fish," he says.

Le Guilvinec is one of several fishing villages in Brittany, France's main fishing region. The village is a popular tourist destination, and its seafood restaurants feature monkfish and lobster fished from English waters.

Soazig Palmer Le Gall, who runs Armement Bigouden, says about half of Breton boats fish in English waters.

"Unfortunately, fishing is a small activity compared to other economic sectors in France," she says. "So there's no plan B at the moment. The only we can do is inform our political representatives that if there is no agreement between Britain and the EU, then it will be a disaster for us."

She and others in the French fishing industry worry that, after Brexit, they will be left fighting to catch fewer fish, crowded into a narrower band of sea.

Jake Cigainero contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Next a story about what Brexit could mean for French fishermen. When the U.K. leaves the European Union, the effect on businesses will go far beyond Britain. NPR's Joanna Kakissis brings us this story from the French coast.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The city of Boulogne-sur-Mer just across the English Channel from Britain is France's No. 1 fishing port. The fishing boats here get most of their catch in British waters. And they bring their haul back to a very busy seaside market.

One of the most popular fish that they catch is sole, which is all over the fish market here today. It's in practically every stall, and everybody's buying it.

Marie-Laure Fontaine is supervising one of the 20 fishmonger stalls here. She's almost out of sole and cod.

MARIE-LAURE FONTAINE: (Through interpreter) Sole and cod and turbot - we get the sole from British waters, and this is a worry.

KAKISSIS: A worry because Britain has voted to leave the European Union. And when the divorce is final, the U.K. will also leave what's called the Common Fisheries Policy. That would make the U.K. an independent coastal state and restrict the catch of French fishermen like Jeremy Devogel, who nets 70 percent - that's 7-0 percent - of his catch in English waters. He frowns as he lowers metal crates for fish onto his new boat.

JEREMY DEVOGEL: (Through interpreter) I've fished for 10 years and recently bought a bigger boat specifically to work in English waters. I'm more than 300,000 euros in debt, and I'm so stressed.

KAKISSIS: So is Stephane Pinto. He's been fishing since 1987 and is vice president of the regional fishing committee.

STEPHANE PINTO: (Through interpreter) Eighty percent of our fish come from the British side, so that makes up 80 percent of our revenue as well. Take that away and the regional economy takes a big hit.

KAKISSIS: I meet Pinto as he and his crew unload their latest catch. Most of it's sole and roussette, a type of dogfish. They sort the fish into containers packed with ice. The catch is sold at dawn the next morning to customers like restaurant owner Laurent Wacogne.

LAURENT WACOGNE: My philosophy is to follow the sea. And for me it's very important to buy the fish in Boulogne.

KAKISSIS: He only serves fish caught by Boulogne fishermen at his high-end restaurant, La Plage. Without this fish, he says, he'll go out of business. In the U.K., Barrie Deas from the National Federation of Fishermen's Organizations says he understands, but...

BARRIE DEAS: EU fleets catch about four times as much in U.K. waters as U.K. vessels catch in EU waters. I think it's right for the French to expect quite a lot of change.

KAKISSIS: But Britain may not welcome all that change, says French fishing company manager Christophe Collin.

CHRISTOPHE COLLIN: We think that the European community will tax quite a lot of the English product, the English fish.

KAKISSIS: Which will make it harder for the English to sell their fish to Europe. Collin is based in the port of Le Guilvinec in the busy fishing region of Brittany on the west coast. He fears that after Brexit French fishermen will battle each other, crowded into a narrower band of sea. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, reporting from the French coast.

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