The Scallop Conflict is a dispute between English and French fishermen over the right to dredge for scallops in the English Channel. The initial hostilities began in 2012 and continued into 2013. After a period of calm there have been further incidents and violence between French and English scallop fishermen taking place ever since with events in 2018 and 2020 being siginificant enough to make national news in both countries.
Due to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) all nations which are members of the European Union can fish freely within Europe’s shared Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). However, twelve miles from each nation’s coastline is reserved as the territorial waters of that nation alone, with that nation controlling fishing within that zone. The scallop conflict began when French fishermen believe that British fishermen were coming within France’s twelve-mile zone inside the Bay of Seine (between Cherbourg and La Harve) to dredge for scallops. The situation was worsened by the fact that the French fishermen were banned from fishing for scallops over the summer months by French regulations as a conservation measure, while British fishermen were allowed to dredge scallops all year round (although regulations on days spent fishing and catch levels applied to them).
The Conflict Begins
On Monday the 8th October 2012 around twelve British fishing boats were dredging for scallops in the Bay of Seine. While the British boats insisted they were at least fifteen miles from the French coast (and therefore fishing legally) the French fishermen believed that the British were inside of their twelve mile zone, and set out in a fleet of fishing boats to intercept them.
Once the French arrived on the scene they allegedly hurled rocks and iron bars at the British boats, fired flares at them and also attempted to ram the British boats. There were also claims that the French laid ropes across the sea in an attempt to foul the propellers of the British boats and stop them from fishing. The British fishermen claimed that a French fisheries patrol vessel arrived but refused to intervene and assist the British fishermen, and once the French fishing boats had left the area the crew from the French fisheries patrol vessel boarded the British fishing boats for an inspection. The British crews saw this as a ploy to use up more of their fishing time.
The UK government turned down requests for Royal Navy protection for British fishermen in the area, stating that the French authorities were capable of handling the situation.
Continuation of the Dispute
While fishing did continue in the following days with no outbreak of further violence the atmosphere was described as an “uneasy ceasefire” by British newspapers, with fishermen constantly keeping an eye on both the horizon and their satellite tracking systems to ensure that the French fishing boats were not approaching again. However, trouble flared up again in January 2013 when the British trawler Van Dijck (which had been involved in the October incident) was accused of dredging seventeen tons of scallops in French waters. The crew of the vessel claimed they had made a mistake about their positioning but the French authorities made them return all of their catch to the sea and the vessel was then taken to a French port where it was impounded. The owners of the vessel had to pay a five-figure fee before the boat could return to its home port of Brixham. A second vessel was then found guilty of illegally fishing in French waters when the Scottish registered Mattanja caught fourteen tons of scallops within French waters. The vessel’s owners were fined £22,000 and banned from fishing for a year, while a bond in excess of £100,000 had to be paid before the vessel could be released and return to Britain.
Incident in Summer 2018
Conflicts in the English Channel between French and British fishermen appeared to die down for several years due to the French and British fishing industries coming to agreements about how many scallops should be taken each year. However, in late August 2018 the issue was reignited and returned to national attention. Media outlets across the UK reported that five British fishing boats were confronted by a much larger number of French vessels when fishing for scallops, once again in the Bay of Seine. The French fishermen shouted insults and then threw rocks and smoke bombs at the British vessels, smashing windows and causing further damage to the boats. At least one British vessels, the Scottish dredger Honeybourne 3 collided with French boats, although no injuries were reported.
The incident was sparked by British fishermen legally taking scallops from an area just outside of French waters. The French fishermen claimed that the British fishermen were “pillaging” scallop stocks, but Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, told the BBC:
[The fishermen are] fully entitled to be there. UK vessels can enter that French zone, it’s not illegal.
Following the incident Barrie Deas, the chief executive of the UK’s National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said to the BBC that that the issue should be resolved by “talking around the table, not on the high seas where people could be hurt.” However, he also said that the issue had been raised with the government and that British fishermen in the area would be asking for protection for British vessels which were “fishing legitimately.”
The Guardian reported that Normany fishermen’s chief Dimitri Rogoff said that the British treated the Bay of Seine scallop stocks like an “open bar” adding “they fish when they want, where they want, and as much as they want.” In the same Guardian article Mr Rogoff also said that English, Scottish and Irish boats had increased their scallop catches in recent years and that British boats were much larger than French boats and used industrial methods such as dredging and freezing catches on board, unlike the French vessels which used more low-impact methods to take scallops. Both of these issues had played a role in reigniting the conflict over scallops, according to Mr Rogoff.
October 2020 Incident
French and British fishermen once again clashed in October 2020 with the British vessels Girl Macey and Golden Promise being surrounded by as many as twenty French vessels. The crews of the French vessels then threw rocks, oil, frying pans and flares at the British boats. Derek Meredith, owner of the Golden Promise, told the Telegraph that tensions were heightening in the Channel. He said “If that flare went into the wheel house the boat would have burned up and would the French have helped? The boat would sink and the French would just leave our boys to drown.” The crews of both vessels said that they would return to the area to continue to earn their living.
The Scallop Conflict shows the ways in which European nations can come into conflict over the rights to fish in waters which because of the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy are shared between different nations. It is easy to see both sides of the argument – British fishermen were doing nothing illegal by dredging for scallops fifteen miles off the coast of France, but the outrage of the French fishermen is understandable when seeing scallop beds on the edge of their waters which they are working to conserve being depleted.
For the French fishermen the reality is that the current regulations mean that British fishermen are doing nothing wrong and the French only have the legal authority to police fishing within twelve miles of the French coastline. Beyond this point EU and Common Fisheries Policy regulations apply and as long as British fishermen are observing these (and there is absolutely no evidence that they are not) then the British fishermen have every right to take scallops from this area and the French have no legal right to attempt to stop them.
Britain’s proposed exit from the EU may offer some way of ending the conflict. French fishermen have welcomed a no deal Brexit as that will mean that British scallop boats will be treated as a third party and would have no right to enter the zone in the Bay of Seine which is the source of the current conflict. However, pro-Brexit fishing organisation Fishing for Leave has pointed out that a huge proportion of the French fishing industries catch comes from Britian’s territorial waters which they would be banned from fishing in if the UK leaves the European Union without a deal.
This article was originally written in 2013 and updated in 2018 and 2020. Further updates will be added as further developments take place.