French fishing boats protest in front of the port of Saint Helier off the British island of Jersey to draw attention to what they see as unfair restrictions on their ability to fish in UK waters after Brexit, on May 6, 2021. - AFP

SAINT HELIER, United Kingdom: "If it goes on like this, there won't be any more fishing around here," warns Loic Farnham, a 30-year-old fisherman, after post-Brexit rule changes prompted a furious French protest. Jersey's picturesque main port of Saint Helier on Thursday saw French fishermen stage an angry protest over the new system of allocating fishing rights.

A flotilla of boats sailed over at dawn and threatening to blockade the harbor. The standoff briefly escalated, with Britain sending over gunboats. Fishermen based in Jersey varied in how harshly they viewed the French direct action. But they agreed that the post-Brexit deal hit their fragile livelihoods and relations with nearby France.

"If we'd have gone across to a port in France I hate to think what would have happened to our boats," said 69-year-old Richard Lebrun, who has been a fisherman for 40 years, in defence of the UK's reaction. "Let's be honest, you're rather well known for kicking off and firing petrol bombs," he told a French AFP reporter. The French fishermen protested over an abrupt change in rules on licenses to fish in Jersey's waters. Until the post-Brexit deal, the rules for French boats had been fixed under an agreement called the Granville Bay Treaty signed in 2000 between Jersey and France.

"It was never right, anyway because the French were giving the French fishermen permits to fish in Jersey waters," Lebrun said, blaming this on Jersey's "weak politicians". "They had carte blanche to fish there since that time. And now because of Brexit it's changed," he said. "We are supposed to have the right to say who does and who doesn't fish in our waters." The post-Brexit agreement signed in late December by London and Brussels allows French fishermen to ply a zone of the British offshore waters, which are rich in fish and less stormy, as long as they could prove they had done this in the recent past.

This zone includes waters off the Channel Islands, which belong to the Crown but are self-governing and not part of the United Kingdom and therefore did not even vote in the Brexit referendum. For 60-year-old local fisherman Wayne Lowe, the problematic factor is the large size of the French fishing fleet. "The ones that have fished with us for years would be OK, there's got to be a cap on the fleet somewhere," he said.

'Separate deal'

During the protest, some local residents from Gouray, a village in Jersey's southeast came to meet the French. Acting as a mediator was Chris Le Masurier, an oyster farmer and owner of a boat used for freight, the Normandy Trader. "What may work between France and Britain won't work here," with the Normandy coast around 20 km away, he insists. "There absolutely must be a separate agreement. We need access to the European market to sell our goods," he added.

Due to the recent tensions, Jersey's fishermen have been warned not to take their catch to Normandy's ports "for two days". This has now been tightened into an outright ban punishable with arrest. "Without the French market, we have nothing," said Farnham. The father-of-two stressed how close the French fishing ports are from here. As soon as the boats "leave the port, they're over here" in Jersey's waters, he said. "The way I see it, they have as much right as us to fish here."

"No London or Brussels'

Farnham began fishing a year ago in an 11.5 m coastal fishing boat but his livelihood has been hit since by the coronavirus restrictions and the current tensions with France. Since mid-December, Farnham has only made six trips to sell to individual customers, he said, and he has to work on construction sites. In another consequence of Brexit, the catch of a Jersey-based boat that unloads in France has to comply with stricter sanitary standards than the catch of a French boat. "Their shells were harvested in ideal waters but mine weren't," said Farnham. "It's ridiculous!"

To resolve the issue he is trying to organize local talks, "so that they leave us to negotiate our deal with France together, without London, without Brussels. Fishing is "a great job. The sea is wonderful," he said. But at the same time he warned: "If this doesn't change in the next few months, I won't have any choice: I'll have to sell my boat." - AFP