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Why is France protesting a UK ban on bottom trawling in protected areas?

French trawlers arrive in the port of Granville, Normandy, after fishing.
French trawlers arrive in the port of Granville, Normandy, after fishing. Copyright AP Photo/Jeremias Gonzalez
Copyright AP Photo/Jeremias Gonzalez
By Rosie Frost
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Fishermen in northern France say that the ban threatens their livelihoods but UK officials have stressed it applies to all boats.

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An argument has been brewing for weeks between France and the UK over new post-Brexit fishing rules.

Last month, the UK banned bottom trawling in part of its protected waters. The move is aimed at protecting vulnerable marine habitats as this fishing practice uses heavy nets dragged along the bottom that damage the seafloor.

But French fishermen say it threatens their livelihoods and some who depend heavily on these waters claim they are being unfairly targeted.

What is the basis of the bottom trawling dispute?

The British government announced that the harmful practice was prohibited in certain parts of 13 of its 178 marine protected areas earlier this year, covering around 4,000 square kilometres of the sea.

France hit back against the ban with some claiming it was targeting its fishermen who operate in these zones. Far-right politicians have also backed trawler operators including Rassemblement National, the parliamentary party led by Marine Le Pen.

In March, Minister for Europe Jean-Noël Barrot visited fishermen in Boulogne-sur-Mer who depend on the restricted areas for much of their catch.

He told them that France supports them and is "resisting these arbitrary decisions by the United Kingdom" calling the ban "potentially discriminatory"

French diplomats have also claimed that the measures may breach the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement which could result in punitive measures against the UK.

According to the Financial Times, they raised the issue at a meeting of EU ministers on 19 March and EU officials were due to meet with their UK counterparts on Monday.

The UK has stressed that the ban applies to all fishing vessels - including its own - not just French ones and was introduced after extensive consultation with stakeholders including French and British fishing organisations.

Conservation groups criticise France for protesting the ban

Conservation groups and environmentalists have backed the ban, accusing the French government of hypocrisy for opposing it.

President Emmanuel Macron declared 2024 the “year of the sea” ahead of the United Nations Conference on the Oceans which will be hosted in Nice in June 2025.

Paris-based NGO BLOOM believes France's opposition is not a good sign ahead of the conference with founder Claire Nouvian saying people should prepare for a "sad spectacle".

“Yielding to the industrial lobbies that refuse to close off the slightest marine area, the far right, the conservative right and the Macronist liberal right have thus ignored all issues of social justice and ecological urgency in order to blow on the embers of nationalism," added Swann Bommier, head of advocacy at BLOOM.

Green MEP Caroline Roose questioned on X whether Minister of Ecological Transition Christophe Béchu plans to “sacrifice Marine Protected Areas on the altar of profit”.

Many also argue that the scope of the UK's ban doesn't go far enough to prevent this harmful fishing practice in protected areas.

Is bottom trawling happening in EU protected waters?

Marine conservation organisations have also drawn attention to destructive fishing practices taking place across the EU's own marine protected areas.

A new report from the Marine Conservation Society, Seas At Risk and Oceana reveals that this damaging practice is still taking place in 90 per cent of MPAs in the bloc - despite an EU plan to phase out the practice by 2030.

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It found that in the offshore protected areas of seven countries - Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden - 4.4 million hours of bottom trawling appears to have been allowed between 2015 and 2023.

The Netherlands has the highest number of bottom towed fishing hours recorded within the MPA sites studied, followed by Germany, Denmark and Spain.

"[The] analysis reveals a decade-long silent tragedy hitting EU seas and fishers - most countries are ignoring EU nature laws, with impunity, by allowing the most destructive fishing practices in the most sensitive and protected waters," says Nicolas Fournier, Campaign Director for Marine Protection at Oceana in Europe.

Greece has just become the first country in Europe to ban bottom trawling in all of its MPAs. It will be banned in the country's three national marine parks by 2026 with the rest of its protected waters following before the end of the decade.

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