Macduff Shellfish say their vessel has been used as a “pawn” in a fishing dispute between the UK and France after it was seized.
The north-east firm’s scallop trawler Cornelis has been apprehended with another boat by French authorities amid accusations they were fishing illegally in the country’s waters.
Macduff Shellfish has insisted it was operating in accordance with the Brexit fisheries agreement – saying the firm has been caught in the crossfire in an escalating trade war between the two nations.
Environment Secretary George Eustice told the House of Commons today that officials are “urgently investigating” the incident.
Why was Macduff Shellfish vessel seized?
French maritime minister Annick Girardin revealed on Twitter shortly after midnight that two UK vessels had been stopped off the coast of Le Havre.
She said that while one was given a verbal warning, the other, now revealed to be the Cornelis, was detained.
The Cornelis predominantly operates from the port of Shoreham on the south coast of England and is operated by Macduff Shellfish.
On French radio news programme RTL Matin the minister described the UK’s “failure to comply” with agreements as “unacceptable”.
She said: “It’s not war, it’s a fight.
“The French and the fishermen have rights. An agreement was signed.
“We must enforce this agreement. We have fishing rights, we must defend them and we will defend them.”
Mr Eustice told MPs the Cornelis was on a list of licensed vessels provided to the EU.
However, he added that “for some reason” it appeared as though it was “withdrawn” from the list – stressing further investigations were underway.
He said: “It’s unclear why that might have been at the moment.”
Escalation of tensions
The seizure comes amidst anger from France that some of its own vessels have not been granted licences to enter UK waters.
A flotilla of angry French fishing crews was met by the Royal Navy in May.
Macduff Shellfish say their trawler has become “a pawn” after it was seized in the escalating row between the UK and France.
Director Andrew Brown told Sky News said: “Access to French waters for the UK scallop fleet is provided under Brexit Fisheries Agreement. Macduff’s fishing activity is entirely legal.
“It appears our vessel is another pawn in the ongoing dispute between the UK and France on the implementation of the Brexit fishing agreement.
“We are looking to the UK government to defend the rights of the UK fishing fleet and ensure that the fishing rights provided under the Brexit Fishing agreement are fully respected by the EU.
“We will vigorously defend ourselves against any vexatious claims.”
What happens now?
The Cornelis trawler has been impounded in Le Havre while local authorities consider possibly legal proceedings.
Meanwhile, the French say they will escalate the dispute with further measures next week – threatening to block UK vessels from their port and potentially increase the cost of electricity they supply to the Channel Islands.
SNP environment spokeswoman Deidre Brock told the House of Commons the skipper of the Cornelis was due in court about the seizure.
She quoted figures alleging not enough French vessels had been given access to UK waters.
She said: “If this is not resolved then it may result in British boats being banned from French waters and Scottish salmon being taken off French menus.
“French officials claim the process for obtaining licences to fish in British waters is too slow and laborious.”
UK Government minister Mr Eustice says an “appropriate and calibrated response” will be delivered if the French threats are enacted – describing the comments from the country’s ministers as “disappointing”.
He said: “The UK stands by the commitments it has made in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), it has already granted 98% of licence applications from EU vessels to fish in our waters.
“I am aware of enforcement activity being undertaken by the French authorities. We are looking into these matters urgently.”
Banff and Buchan MP David Duguid, who is the UK’s fisheries envoy, has held talks with UK Government ministers today about the situation.
He said: “The French appear to be accusing the UK of not following the terms of the TCA but I’m assured that we are merely following the terms for awarding licences that was agreed.
“The language we are hearing from the French Government is very unhelpful.
“In my discussions with the industry, everyone agrees this escalation of the debate is helping no one.
“I’m working with the UK Government to make sure that we don’t grant concessions to the French beyond those agreed in the TCA.”