Royal Navy Mobilizes to Respond to French Fishing Rights Protest

HMS Severn under way, 2012 (Royal Navy file image)

Published May 6, 2021 9:38 PM by The Maritime Executive

A flotilla of French trawlers that deployed to the British island of Jersey to protest post-Brexit fishing rules has now departed, ending a multi-day standoff involving the local authorites, the Royal Navy and France's Marine Nationale. 

Jersey is a crown dependency located in the Channel about 12 nm off the coast of France. After Brexit, Jersey's local government used its newfound authority to place new restrictions on foreign-flag fishing permits for local waters, imposing a requirement that foreign fishermen must show a history of prior operations in the area and must upgrade to the latest trawling technology. 

The move drew condemnation from French fishermen and the French government, which declared Jersey's new rules "null and void." This week, dozens of French shellfish trawlers mobilized to Jersey's main harbor, where they occupied the entrance and the waters just outside in an act of protest. Romain Davodet, a fisherman from Normandy, told Le Parisien that he estimated that at least 70 boats came from France - along with three boats from Jersey, who crossed lines of nationality to join the protest. 

Jersey's government and language are English, but its power supply is largely French, and Paris threatened to cut off the island's electricity in retaliation for the new fishing rules. This angered 10 Downing Street, which issued a statement calling the French threat "clearly unacceptable and disproportionate." In a show of force, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson dispatched the gray-hull patrol vessels HMS Tamar and HMS Severn to Jersey. From the French side, the Marine Nationale sent the small, white-hull patrol boats Athos and Themis

The Minister of Jersey, John le Fondré, met with representatives of the fishermen on Thursday in an attempt to de-escalate, and he proposed setting up a forum for discussion between the local government and French fishing interests. After the conference, the flotilla dispersed and the naval vessels returned to their previous missions. "The tension is at its height, but violent action is not on the agenda," one protest participant told Ouest France.

Under the terms of Britain's hard-won Brexit agreement with the EU, European fishermen will retain access to Britain's waters until mid-2026, with a gradually diminishing share of the catch. The agreement contains penalties for the UK - including retaliatory tariffs and a rollback of other segments of the Brexit agreement - if it should restrict access for EU fishermen. The French government and the EU have made clear that they view Jersey's local licensing scheme as a violation of the Brexit deal. 

"In the [Brexit] agreement, there are retaliatory measures, and we are ready to use them," said French maritime minister Annie Girardin in a speech on Tuesday.