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Hard Brexit threat looms over French fishing fleet

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GRANVILLE, France: The waters for French fishermen are being stirred up by uncertainty of what will happen if Britain leaves the EU without a deal on Oct 31 and their boats barred from British waters.

A no-deal Brexit would likely end access for French boats to British waters and, in France, fishing industry players fear this will not just increase tensions with rivals across the Channel but between themselves.

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Sophie Leroy, whose Armement Cherbourgeois company operates three fishing vessels off the northwest coast of France, says there have been almost daily checks of their boats by the British authorities.

Earlier this month, her boats were stopped for what she described as an interminable set of checks 21 miles off the English coast.

Her boats were also surrounded by 15 British fishing vessels, she said. "And they were saying, 'We are going to do the same as what the French did to us last year'."

The "Scallop Wars" in 2018, when French and British fishing vessels clashed over access to scallops off France's Normandy coastline, was finally settled by the two sides in a deal last September.

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While a Brexit deal would help put a framework in place, Britain anticipates the possibility of more clashes between rival fishing vessels if the country pulls out of the EU with no agreement in place.

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The government last week released a study of that scenario, codenamed "Operation Yellowhammer", after a copy of the document was leaked to the press.

One issue it addressed was the possibility that EU vessels could illegally enter British waters, leading to "clashes between vessels", "violent disputes" or even the "blockading of ports".

"WAR OF NERVES"

So far this time around the two sides have not actually come to blows. But Leroy referred to what she called a "war of nerves" online.

"I've had a photo of one of my boats published on Facebook with a target on it," she said.

Nor are the British the only problem, she says.

Like other fishing companies, her fear is that if a "no-deal" Brexit closes British waters to the French, then they will be left fighting among themselves over what is left.

The prospect of such infighting – of Breton fishing vessels clashing with their Norman neighbours – hung over this week's Assises de la peche, a fishing industry meeting in the northern French port of Granville.

Food and Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume made several calls for solidarity during his visit there, both between EU countries affected by Brexit and among French fishermen.

"With a no-deal Brexit, the stakes are high for us," said Philippe de Lambert des Granges, the fishing ministry official preparing the French industry for the impact of Brexit.

Fish caught in British waters account for 25 per cent of the industry's volume and 20 per cent of its value, he said – which helps explain the concerns of the fishermen here.

Seventy percent of Leroy's current catch comes from British waters. "We are all going to be affected, so we are all going to be stretched," she said.

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