The UK’s decision to send gunboats to Jersey in response to fishing protests by French trawlers should not come as a surprise: the EU’s history is full of fishing skirmishes.
Fish stocks have all they need to be considered as a resource over which nations can wage wars, as they are scarce and most often involve attempts to cross (maritime) borders.
Joint and multilateral management of these resources – like the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – has always been a way to avoid this potential source of disputes escalating.
Throughout history, however, conflicts and social tensions between different fishermen have often led to diplomatic crises, some of them involving the EU and its member states.
Scallop wars, France v. the UK – the 2010s
In 2012, five British boats fishing scallops 20-nautical-miles off the French coast of Le Havre, in Normandy, found themselves surrounded by around 40 hostile French vessels.
French authorities had temporarily closed that area to their own fishermen for conservation reasons but were legally unable to do anything to prevent the British fishermen.
The French Navy had to intervene when the British vessels were pelted with rocks by French fishermen and a diplomatic meeting between the French and British authorities was necessary to defuse the row.
Scallop fishing in the Channel is not managed through an EU-level quota but by limitations in the so-called ‘effort regime’, meaning that it is up to countries with an interest in fishing the stock in the area to implement national measures.
Tensions flared again between British and French scallop fishermen at the end of August 2018, when Normandy fishermen claimed that they had been allocated shorter fishing times for scallops than their British counterparts.
The issue was settled with an agreement reached by the UK and France in September 2018, that provided for all European vessels below 15 meters currently fishing in the zone to continue fishing, and for all bigger European fishing boats to resume activities in November 2018.
Turbot War, Canada v. Spain/EU – 1995
In March 1995, the Canadian Coast Guard seized the Spanish trawler Estai off the coast of Newfoundland on the charge of over-fishing turbot, the high valuable Greenland halibut whose population was declining.
The situation rapidly escalated when the then EU’s fisheries commissioner Emma Bonino deemed the seizure as “an act of organised piracy.”
The Spanish asked the Canadian to release the ship – as well as its catch – and sent a warship to protect its fishermen.
The major diplomatic incident was ultimately settled one month later with an agreement between Spain, Canada, and the EU, setting a stage for a more coordinated and sustainable approach in managing declining fish stocks.
Cherbourg incident, France v. UK – 1993
A number of incidents occurred between Britain and France between March and April 1993, requiring the intervention of the British Royal Navy.
In 1992, the EU had recognised a six-nautical-mile British limit for exclusive fishing rights around the Channel islands, which was hailed as a huge victory by the UK government and strongly objected to by the French.
When the Brits brought in the new EU restrictions, several incidents occurred as British fishing inspectors confiscated the catch of French fishing boats.
A Royal Navy vessel sent to patrol the zone was surrounded by French trawlers and seized, before French authorities intervened in order to return it to the UK
The UK announced the exclusion zone would be maintained by force if necessary. In the end, France recognised the EU restrictions, albeit informally.
Third cod war, UK v. Iceland – 1975
The mother of all fishing confrontations facing off Britain and Iceland actually started back in 1958, way before UK’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973.
However, the so-called third “cod war” with Iceland happened in 1975 and saw the EEC countries backing the UK when Iceland unilaterally increased its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – and its fishing rights – by 200 miles
The dispute ended with a peace conference in Oslo in 1976, once the US stepped in putting pressure on the UK when Iceland threatened to close a NATO base on its territory.
Lately, the UK agreed not to have any right to fish inside the Iceland EEZ.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]