As It Happens

Jersey fisherman says regular folks are caught in the crossfire of post-Brexit fishing row

As France and the U.K. squabble about fishing rights, those doing the actual fishing are caught in the middle.

Britain sends patrol vessels to the island of Jersey after French fishermen set up blockade

Josh Dearing is a fisherman on Jersey, a self-governing British protectorate island off the coast of France that's at the centre of a heated post-Brexit fishing dispute. (Matt Sharp)

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As France and the U.K. squabble about fishing rights, those doing the actual fishing are caught in the middle.

It all comes down to who's allowed to fish off the coast of Jersey, the largest of the English Channel Islands and a self-governing British protectorate off the coast of northern France.

When the U.K. left the European Union in December, it also left a longstanding agreement that had peacefully regulated fishing rights in Europe's waters since the 1970. 

Now France has accused Jersey of violating the U.K.'s post-Brexit agreement with Europe by imposing limits on French vessels in Jersey's waters — issuing licenses only to those who can prove they've fished the area for at least 10 days over a period of 12 months within the last three years

In response, French fishers set up a blockade along their port of St. Helier, where Jersey fishers usually land and sell their catch. The French government has threatened to cut off electricity to Jersey, which it supplies through undersea cables.

The U.K. responded on Thursday by sending two navy patrol vessels to monitor the situation.

Jersey fisherman Josh Dearing spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the ongoing tensions. Here is part of their conversation. 

Josh, first of all, can you describe for us what it was like to look out in the harbour this week and see this blockade of French boats?

It was quite a sight and very impressive, to say the least. I woke up about 4:30 in the morning and I looked out my bedroom window, which looks over the south coast of Jersey, and I could already see the lights on the horizon coming from France.

And then I made my way down the harbour and, as you say, there was about 70 to 80 French vessels there with their lights on and flairs on the go with a few hundred French fishermen on board.

In addition to these boats, the British navy is now on the scene. So tell us about that.

We're a really small island. We're a 100,000 population. We're nine miles by five miles. We don't have any police vessels. We don't have any Coast Guard vessels. We're very sort of unprotected. And it was very nice of the prime minister of England, Boris Johnson, to send down two Royal Navy vessels to help protect the island.

French fishermen angry over loss of access to waters off their coast gather their boats in protest off the English Channel island of Jersey on Thursday. (Oliver Pinel/The Associated Press)

How many people in Jersey are like yourself, making a living off of fishing?

Relatively small at the moment. Fishing was very popular, you know, sort of a few years back when there was a lot more fish life. There was lots of money to be made in fishing for lobsters and crabs. And our waters are so plentiful and rich because we have loads of rocky outcrops, we have reefs, we have shallow areas, we have deep areas. And it makes for a really good environment for shellfish and fish life.

But because of, you know, factors such as global warming, overfishing and different fishing methods over the years, there's been a decline in the fishing industry within Jersey. I'm quite lucky because I do sort of low-impact fishing. I hand dive for scallops and I pot for lobsters and crabs. I don't do any sort of destructive methods like dredging or trawling. 

And all of my stuff luckily stays on the island. I'm fortunate I don't catch enough to export it, but the bigger boats that do export to France are the ones facing the brunt of this.

Every fisherman risks their lives every day they go to sea. And it would be a shame … to lose out financially for anyone, French or Jersey boat.- Josh Dearing, Jersey fisherman 

The fishermen from France say they're being treated unfairly. And do you have any sympathy for what they're saying?

Yeah, massively. Fishing is, you know, it's the most dangerous job in the world. I would sympathize for any fishermen across the globe, and I would never want to see harm come to any one as well financially, because it's a tough game to be in. You know, every fisherman risks their lives every day they go to sea. And it would be a shame … to lose out financially for anyone, French or Jersey boat.

But the rules are the rules, and permits and licences have been given out fairly by EU regulations, and I think the French are just up in arms about it.

A CBC News graphic shows the location of Jersey in relation to both Britain and France. (CBC News)

But the French say that the United Kingdom is violating this trade and co-operation agreement that would allow this fishing, that was struck just last year, I guess, coming out of Brexit. What do you say to that?

After Brexit, obviously, lots of things were up in the air. We had sort of like a cooling off period which came to an end last weekend, hence all of what's going on at the moment.

But I mean, there [were] deals on both sides. We were still allowed to land to France…. All of our exports, 80 per cent of the catch in Jersey, is landed to France because the French love shellfish. 

But they never stuck to their side of the deal originally, which was to allow us to carry on landing. And they were continuing to fish our waters, which were more plentiful than their own. And yeah, they kind of broke their side of the deal first.

The French ports are turning away the fish that the Jersey boats are catching, is that right?

The ports up and down the coast closest to us have shut off to us. One of the Jersey fishermen went across yesterday, Jason Bonham, to land his catch of cuttlefish. And he was then greeted by a hundred angry French fishermen telling him to politely go away from the harbour wall. 

And he had to come back to Jersey with his haul of a few hundred kilos of fish that he was unable to sell, and he ended up just giving it away from the goodness of his heart to the locals, just so that it wouldn't go to waste.

Can this be resolved? Can you see an end game?

It's really hard, obviously. It's a much higher level than a lowly fisherman like me. But the ministers are talking and we just hope that, you know, our governments and the English government can stay strong and not sail us down the river like we were with Brexit. You know, we need to try and just stick up to them.

And we should point out that you did not get a vote on Brexit in Jersey, did you?

That's correct.

Does it seem that the small operations … whether they're French or they're Jersey or whatever … really struggle and they don't seem to get the attention they need from governments when they're making these decisions? Does it feel like that?

Yeah, absolutely, I mean, obviously, the bigger you are, the louder you can shout. The small people do seem to get forgotten.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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