France slams UK over fishing access to protected habitat in British waters

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France has launched a dispute with the UK over fishing rights after its trawlers were banned from some British waters to protect vulnerable habitats.

French diplomats raised the issue at a meeting of EU ministers on March 19, and officials from the European Commission, which enforces fishery and trade measures, will meet UK counterparts on Monday.

Paris has asked the EU to determine if London’s move breaches the post Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which could lead to punitive measures against Britain.

The UK last month banned bottom trawling — which involves dragging heavy nets to along the sea floor — in 13 protected areas within its territorial waters. The law applies to British and French vessels, which have long fished in the areas.

Trawlers from Boulogne in France depend on the waters for much of their catch and far-right politicians have been quick to embrace their cause, with the Rassemblement National accusing the UK of taking an “axe” to the French fishing industry. 

“A diplomatic showdown must be launched immediately. The survival of an entire profession depends on it,” its regional party in northern France posted on X.

President Emmanuel Macron’s party is trailing the RN in European parliament elections that will take place in June, raising the pressure on him to defend the influential fishing lobby.

Europe Minister Jean-Noël Barrot travelled to Boulogne in late March and said France would resist the “arbitrary decisions by the United Kingdom” and would ask the EU to take “retaliatory measures”. 

The TCA handed the UK control of its territorial waters but EU boats retained much of their access to their traditional fishing grounds within them.

The 13 Marine Protected Areas cover approximately 4,000 square kilometres and include rare reef and rock habitats.

The dispute is the second clash this year over UK marine conservation measures. In February, Denmark and Sweden demanded that the Commission take action against the UK after it closed part of the Dogger Bank in the North Sea to protect seabirds.

Fishing NGOs support the UK decision. Claire Nouvian, of French conservation group Bloom, said: “The Macronist right, the far right and the conservative right have once again decided to rescue the trawler lobby and work against the interests of citizens by ignoring the unprecedented ecological and social issues of our time.”

She added that her organisation encouraged the UK “not to give in to French injunctions to defend the least defensible fishing of the 21st century: trawling”.

Charles Clover, executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation, a conservation charity in the UK, said the TCA permitted restrictions on fishing provided they treat all countries’ boats equally.

“The UK is not only within its rights to prohibit trawling in certain MPAs: it is legally required to. Many of these sites were designated under EU laws — laws that many EU member states are not following,” he said.

He added: “There is, perhaps, a deep irony that the only European country that is even trying to follow the EU habitats directive at sea is the only country to have left the European Union.”

The UK government said: “We are proud of our strong record of safeguarding our oceans and the precious species that depend on them.”

It added: “The recent decision to prohibit bottom trawling, which applies to all vessels, including British ones, followed extensive consultation with a range of stakeholders, including UK and French fishing organisations.”

The French government and the European Commission have been approached for comment.

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