Brexit means the UK has an opportunity to take back control of its fishing waters – but maritime disputes have got so heated in the past that one French fisherman threatened to hang a British naval officer.
Under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), many British fishermen feel like they have been dealt a raw deal. Currently over 60 percent of the fish caught in UK waters are caught with boats from overseas. However, as a new deal with the EU is being negotiated, Boris Johnson has the opportunity to stand up for British fishermen and not concede to pressure from Brussels to allow their boats unrestricted access post-Brexit.
In the past, there have been numerous disputes over fishing between the UK and its neighbours, especially during the Cod Wars of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.
As things hotted up between the UK, Iceland and other countries, the Royal Navy was forced to send warships to protect its fishing boats.
After one incident in the early Eighties, when a naval officer found evidence of illegal activity on a French boat, things escalated at an alarming rate.
Documents unearthed at the National Archives reveal that Lieutenant Simon Hambrook, from Balderton, boarded a French trawler in the North Sea in July 1981.
He found evidence to suggest the trawler had been using illegal nets and HMS Alderney was ordered to escort the vessel to Grimsby.
However, the three Frenchmen on board – trawlerman France Barbary, his shipmate Pierre Boulet and skipper Jean Blanpain of Equihen near Bologne – were furious.
After the boat was towed, Mr Barbary assaulted the officer, and threatened to hang him, a court heard.
Both Mr Barbary and Mr Boulet also assaulted Sub-Lieutenant Christopher Taylor.
An article from the Advertiser on July 17, 1981, read: “A French trawlerman threatened to hang a Newark naval officer from the yard-arm when his vessel was taken in tow by a Royal Naval fisheries protection vehicle.
“And the Frenchman, France Barbary, assaulted Lieutenant Simon Hmabrook, 28, who had led the boarding part from HMS Alderney, Grimsby Magistrates were told last week.”
The skipper, Mr Blanpain, apparently tried to make a dash for it, but later gave up his ship after a collision with HMS Alderney.
The three of them appeared before Grimsby Magistrates’ Court and Mr Blanpain admitted to using undersized nets and was fined the maximum £1000.
He was also fined £1000 for each of three denied offences: failing to comply with the order of a naval officer, obstructing the tow and obstructing HMS Alderney.
Mr Barbary and Mr Boulet were fined £500 for assaulting Sub-Lieutenant Taylor and Mr Barbary was fined an additional £100 for assaulting Lieutenant Hambrook.
Both men denied the assaults.
In Foreign Office records released in 2015, the French vessel was identified as the Jean Mermoz.
This incident goes to show the level of animosity that is displayed on the seas over fishing.
Similar incidents took place during the first Cod War with Iceland, when Royal Navy frigates accompanied the UK fleet into Iceland’s exclusion zone to continue their fishing.
A game of cat-and-mouse between the Icelandic coastguard vessels and the British trawlers ensued, whereby the coastguard attempted to seize British vessels, the British rammed the coastguard in response and the coastguard threatened to open fire.
There have been far fewer conflicts between the UK and its neighbours over fishing since the Common Fisheries Policy was launched in 1983.
There are fears that once the UK takes back control of its waters, such incidents may be on the rise again.
Nevertheless, British fishermen are determined that UK waters, which contain six times the fish stocks of the rest of the EU’s waters combined, are to be used in the national interest again.
Outside the EU, as an “independent coastal state”, the UK has the right to control what is known as an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a vast territory stretching up to 200 nautical miles or up to the median point between it and its neighbours (eg. halfway across the Irish Sea or the English Channel).
However, EU member states with fishing industries set to lose out are vying for continued access.
Given that most of the fish landed in the UK is then sold to the EU, it will be a delicate negotiating process, as high export tariffs could damage the British industry in a different way.