In a recent clash over scallops in the English Channel, fishing vessels from both Britain and France met in physical conflict. Boats from both sides sustained damages from ramming, flares and thrown projectiles. Such hostilities represent a clear breakdown in the mutual governance of the sea and its associated activities; yet the exact reasoning for the clash remains debatable.
This is not the first-time European nations have contested fishing grounds. Throughout the 20th century similar disagreements over fishing grounds, dubbed the Cod Wars, saw Britain contesting Iceland’s extension of their fishing territory. The political context of the time (the Cold War) loomed large in the background, inspiring certain academics to consider this clash a proxy conflict of the greater political tension. However, others believed the Cod War to be a separate disagreement, isolated from the larger narrative. Similarly, the Scallop Wars can be considered an independent confliction over fishing access; or may be seen in the context of Brexit.
Many of the earliest reports on the incident quickly labelled the conflict a symptom of Brexit. With both the Telegraph and The Conservation marking the clash as the beginning of a ‘full blown fish war with the EU’– portraying recent hostilities as just a ‘skirmish before the battle of Brexit’. While academics are generally in agreement that Brexit will increase contestations over fishing territories and access (especially during the negotiation period) this assertion does not mean that every post 2016 fishing dispute is caused by Brexit.
This misunderstanding is exemplified in the opening line of the Telegraph’s article, which sets the conflict in the ‘usually uncontested waters of the English channel’. In reality the English Channel is well recognised as a historically contested space; fishing disputes are far from uncommon in the region. Disagreements over access to Scallops have been ongoing for the past 15 years, the recent clash is not an isolated incident, but a reoccurring consequence of an unsettled governance dispute.
Since 2003 The French fishing fleet have been restricted in their access to scallop populations seasonally, as to reduce fishing pressure on the species. The British vessels are not held to these measures however, creating tension between vessels operating under differing legalities. A near identical incident to the most recent scallop clash was recorded in 2012, when several British fishing boats were attacked by French boats after fishing for scallops during the off season. This incident occurred years before the UK’s EU referendum, therefore dispelling any notion that the English Channel was an uncontested space before Brexit. In fact, certain academics go as far as saying Brexit may actually resolve the Scallop War– rather than incite it.
If the issue is to be resolved, focus must be on establishing the root cause of this disagreement. Given its complex political history, it is clear that
the Scallop War predates the wider European debate. While Brexit will certainly have an influence on this matter moving forward, it is not the cause of the problem.
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