BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, France (Reuters) – French trawler owner Bruno Margolle refuses to talk of victory over British fishermen, when European quotas have been cut and will soon be negotiated annually. But for now, the right to keep on fishing deep into British waters brings considerable comfort.
Talks over Britain’s post-Brexit trade relationship with the European Union went down to the wire ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline, in part due to fishing. Fishermen like Margolle had backed France’s tough stance, even though it nearly scuppered a deal and with it their livelihoods.
“It’s a relief. I’m not going to say otherwise,” said Margolle, who heads a fishermen’s cooperative in Boulogne-sur-Mer. “We were strung up on the guillotine, waiting.”
For Margolle, whose trawler the Nicolas-Jeremy spends 200 days of the year chasing mackerel, whiting and squid through British waters, the big win was the right to keep fishing within the six to 12 mile band off Britain’s coast.
“It was our red line,” he said. Some British fishermen, despite a promise by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that Brexit would herald a “sea of opportunity”, talk of betrayal.
Overall, the trade deal will see a gradual fall in the quotas the European fleet can catch in British waters, reaching a 25% reduction in value terms after 5-1/2 years.
Beyond 2026, Britain will be able to further cut quotas during annual consultations. But any disputes could see the EU impose tariffs on fish imports and other goods. With about two-thirds of UK-landed fish exported to the continent, that may give the Europeans some leverage.
Even so, France’s National Maritime Fishing Committee said no other sector was being forced to endure annual negotiations. Uncertainty would hinder investment, Margolle said.
He and his three fishermen sons would face tough decisions in the next few years, Margolle said.
The cut to European quotas will exceed 25% for some species, such as the mackerel the Margolles hunt in British waters in May and June and which represent 80% of their earnings during these months.
The family operation and the fishing fleet in Boulogne-sur-Mer, from where the white cliffs of Britain’s southern shore can be seen, would need to adapt to survive, Margolle said.
That might mean turning to alternative species and fishing methods, and downsizing the local fleet, which will be easier if the government helps people to retire.
“In the five years we have ahead of us, we will have to get out of our comfort zone,” Margolle said. “Because the fleet as it is will not survive the five years. That’s clear.”
(Reporting by Richard Lough; Editing by Giles Elgood)