English Channel

English Channel

Channel fly-shooter agreement breakdown

Opinions are divided on fly-shooting, and nowhere more so than at the eastern end of the English Channel where tensions can run high over the mainly winter fishery in this region.

For some, fly-shooting is seen as a gentle method of fishing, with low fuel consumption and limited seabed impact. This is a technique has become increasingly popular, although in the Eastern Channel region and in other parts of France it has come in for criticism from small-scale fishermen, who claim the fly-shooters are stripping their grounds bare in record time.

Fly-shooting is now prohibited inside the 12-mile zone off the coast of Brittany, and in the Channel, the situation has become critical, with more and more French, Belgian, Dutch and English fly-shooters operating in the region.

Fly-shooters in port in Boulogne / Chalutiers-senneurs dans el port de Boulogne

Many of the Hauts-de-France region’s small-scale fishermen are strongly opposed to fly-shooting, which they consider too efficient and under-regulated. In December 2020, fishermen in Boulogne-sur-Mer blockaded access to the harbour to protest against the presence of the foreign fly-shooters and to demand a stricter regulatory framework.

Although a framework agreement had been reached in 2019 and talks have been in progress for months between French fishermen’s organisations, VisNed in the Netherlands and Belgian PO Reederscentrale. Just as an agreement was ready to be signed earlier this year, it turned out that the terms could not be agreed on.

This would have limited the French fleet to 28 fly-shooter licences. The Netherlands has 24 available licences, all of which are in use, plus the number of Belgian vessels would have been fixed at six and the UK at 17.

The 24 Dutch licences are all in use / Les 24 licences néerlandaises sont utilisées

‘It’s still too much,’ said Olivier Lepretre, president of the Hauts-de-France Regional Fisheries Committee.

These new measures were supposed to come into effect by the end of April for Area VIId – but ultimately the agreement was not signed.

‘We need a real framework, not just an agreement, in order to combat overexploitation of marine resources,’ stated Bruno Margollé, President of the Boulogne PO Co-opérative Maritime ​Etaploise (CME).

French fishermen have also invested in fly-shooting capacity / Les pêcheurs français ont également investi dans des unités à la senne danoise

Under the proposals, fly-shooting would have been excluded from certain waters off the French coast, remaining outside twelve or nine miles in particular areas, while also introducing an seine rope length limitation of 3200 metres, with a 15% tolerance.

But the main sticking point turned out to be the number of fishing days. The Dutch proposals for a a maximum of 140 days per year, and a maximum of eight fishing days per two week period represents an effective reduction of 40 fishing days, according to VisNed.

‘This is unacceptable,’ insisted Olivier Lepretre, who wants to see a limit of 100 days per year.

Last-minute no-deal

‘After talking for twenty months, we thought we had an agreement,’ said Pim Visser of Dutch PO Visned.

‘In November last year we thought we had an agreement that would be signed before Christmas, but then in February the French came back and made some new demands.’

French-, Dutch- and UK-flagged fly-shooters alongside in Boulogne / Des chalutiers-senneur battant pavillon français, hollandais et britannique le long des quais boulonnais

He said that by April, and with the 2020-21 fly-shooting season approaching its end, the Dutch industry had given in to all of the French demands, schedules had been arranged limiting the Dutch fly-shooters to eight days’s fishing in every fourteen, but but then everything unravelled at the last moment.

‘At the meeting there was one French PO that seemed to not be in agreement,’ he said. ‘The rest were prepared for agreement. Then in May we had a message from the French to say that there was no agreement. We responded by expressing our disappointment, and we have asked for a date in September when we can meet in Boulogne to pick up the threads of this – because an agreement is needed,’ he said.

Unlike UK-registered vessels, Dutch fly-shooters are limited to 370gt and 750kW / Contrairement aux navires immatriculés au Royaume-Uni, les chalutiers-senneurs néerlandais sont limités à 370 t et 750 kW

‘Now our fleet is gone from the Channel. The winter season has come to an end.’

Pim Visser added that things had looked hopeful that all those months of negotiation would finally pay off.

‘We had been looking forward to seeing how the agreement would work out for what was left of 2020-21 for Area VIId, and then we could evaluate what had gone well and what could be improved, and then discuss extending an agreement to other areas,’ he said.

Dutch fly-shooters tied up in Boulogne / Des chalutiers-senneurs néerlandais immobilisés à Boulogne

So is he confident that negotiations can begin again?

‘I Hope so. There are hidden and not-so-hidden agendas there, and there’s huge discomfort among the French fleet, with Brexit, the Jersey situation, the problems of the UK 6-12 mile zone, plus there’s the situation with the fly-shooters,’ he said, and stressed that while there are 24 Dutch licences, limited to 370gt and 750kW, all of which have been in use for some time, there has been an increase in the fleet with larger, notably UK-registered vessels and some under the Belgian flag.

‘A lot of these are owned by very good fishermen from Urk, but as Visned we do not represent these vessels. That’s a problem for the NFFO and Rederscentrale,’ he said.

‘On top of that, the French fishermen have built a lot of fly-shooters themselves, both in Brittany and in the Boulogne region.’

Danish agreement

The chaotic situation with the Pas de Calais contrasts with the agreements that the Dutch federations have been able to strike elsewhere.

‘We had an agreement with the Brits on pulse fishing that worked pretty well. We have several agreements with the Danish fishermen, including a North Sea agreement that has been in place for 4-5 years. Now we also have an agreement with them on the Skagerrak,’ Pim Visser said.

‘This has certainly cost our members fishing opportunities. The Danes are very mush opposed to fishing with chain mat gear in the Skagerak and we felt that the right way to go was to sacrifice the use of this gear under the agreement, although several of our fishermen who use this gear have been very unhappy with this outcome.’