Scallops are not subject to tonnage quotas in the way that, say, cod and haddock are. Instead there is a limitation on the days at sea that larger vessels over 15 metres long can spend fishing for scallops. Smaller vessels under 15 metres are not subject to these effort restrictions. There has long been a disparity between the amount of days at sea that the UK and French fleets have access to. The French fleet have access to around double the effort allocation than the UK fleet under the so called "Western Waters Regime" because of the methodology used to distribute allocations when the system was established. It is a familiar story with the Common Fisheries Policy and we see it on many different stocks where we don't really get a fair share of fishing opportunities.
Some years ago, the French authorities put in place a long-closed season on their fleet for fishing for scallops in the Bay of Seine, partly to protect the stock during the spawning season early in the summer but partly to maximise the economic value of scallops since the market in France is much stronger later in the autumn. However, those restrictions are a national measure so do not apply to fleets from other countries like the UK and Ireland. The contested grounds are around 18-20 miles off the French coast, so they are not even in French territorial waters and other countries have a legal right to fish there.
The genesis of the clashes this summer was the collapse of a long standing voluntary agreement between the French and UK fleets. Since 2012, a deal has been in place. The French industry agreed to give 10 percent of their effort allocation to the over 15 metre UK fleet and in return, the over 15 metre UK vessels agreed not to fish in the Bay of Seine area during the closed season that the French observed. It was a sensible and pragmatic agreement. The French fleet have more effort allocation than they need or use and by transferring that to the UK fleet, the closure in their main fishing ground was observed voluntarily.
The deal collapsed this year because the French fleet insisted that the closure also apply to smaller under 15 metre vessels as well as the larger ones. This was not something that the UK industry was able to deliver since the Under 15 metre fleet did not need nor therefore benefit from any transfer. The small vessels only account for about 6 percent of the catch. As a result of this impasse, the whole agreement fell through and the UK fleet therefore resumed fishing in the contested grounds leading to the skirmishes at the end of August.
There were a number of attempts to get the negotiations back on track. I had numerous discussions with Stephane Travert, my French counterpart to try to identify a way forward. We then hosted a round of negotiations in London followed by a second round in Paris. In the end, finding a way to make a deal work that would bind the smaller vessels proved too difficult. It would have required quota on other fish stocks to be swapped and then leased to try to raise a financial compensation package and that is always a harder and less certain deal to bank. By this time of the year, the weather starts to deteriorate so the value of unused quota can become less certain.
However, we got there in the end. An agreement was put back together for the over 15 metre vessels that is similar to the one that has been done in previous years. It means that the larger vessels will abide by the closure and in return will have the transfer of days at sea so that when the fishery does open they have the ability to fish. I always maintained that it was better for all sides to stand back up the conventional agreement that has stood the test of time than to have no agreement at all.
A number of commentators have inevitably attempted to link this dispute to Brexit. However, it is an entirely unrelated episode. There was a similar dispute six years ago that led to the previous agreement. I have always said that, whether we are in or out of the EU, we will still negotiate with our neighbours and agree shared approaches on shared stocks, just as we do with Norway and the Faroes now. Fisheries policy is as much about international relations as it is anything else and always has been. After we leave the EU, there will still be annual discussions and agreements. The difference is that when we leave the EU we will be an independent state and we will conduct those negotiations on our own behalf rather than having to abide by what the European Commission decides.