Steph Noel, who has been fishing the waters off Jersey for almost four decades, could not see the point of chugging out to sea in his 8.5-metre boat, Belle Bird, this weekend.
“There’s no value in it for me,” he said. “It’ll cost me in bait and diesel but even if I have a good day there’s no market there for what I bring back.”
Noel, 52, last went out on Sunday and had a decent haul of lobster and crab but could not find a buyer for them and they remain – alive – tucked away in a floating container out at sea. “You can’t keep them there for too long, especially as the sea warms up. They’ll start eating each other. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them.”
The French fishers’ blockade of Jersey’s main port, St Helier, this week and the UK government’s decision to send two naval vessels to keep an eye on the situation made headlines across the globe. But people like Noel aren’t interested in the banner headlines. He just wants a market for his fish. The root of the problem, he says, is not the actions of a few French fishers but, ultimately, the UK’s departure from the EU.
Brexit has led to fishers across the UK struggling to find a market for their fish. They complain of excessive paperwork, delays at ports, rows over labelling. They did not get a vote on Brexit in Jersey, which is not part of the UK, but they are directly affected.
When the UK left the EU’s single market and customs union on 31 January 2020 it also exited the common fisheries policy that has divvied up the spoils of Europe’s waters since the 1970s.
In addition, the Bay of Granville agreement, which had established a pattern of rights for French boats up to three miles from Jersey’s coast, came to an end.
French fishers now believe they have been given a raw deal from Jersey over a new licensing scheme governing their post-Brexit fishing rights in the area. The French government has threatened to cut off the electricity supply to Jersey and French ports have begun to turn away Jersey fish. Then came this week’s blockade.
It is complicated but Noel summed it up succinctly. “Brexit has put a spanner in the works,” he said. “I have a mortgage to pay. If it isn’t sorted, I may lose the house. My wife [a civil servant] is having to support me. We were told frictionless trade for Jersey fish going into France, and it hasn’t happened. I don’t blame the French for protesting. They are just doing what we’re doing, trying to make a living out of the sea. We’re the piggy in the middle, caught up in the fallout.”
The tanks at the shellfish exporters Aqua-Mar on Victoria Pier tell a sad tale. They are heaving with lobster and brown and spider crab – about £40,000 worth.
One of the workers, Fernando Carvalho, said they usually kept the shellfish in the tanks for two or three days before exporting them. The creatures have been in there for up to 10 days now. The weaker ones die or are eaten.
“We’re struggling a lot,” said Carvalho. He said Brexit had led to “crazy” amounts of paperwork. “It used to take 15 or 20 minutes, it takes hours now.” They were starting to cope with that – but now have been hit by the loss of their route to the markets of continental Europe.
Previously, they had sent their lobsters and crabs to St Malo in Brittany, France, three hours away. French, Spanish and Portuguese buyers would meet them there and take what they needed there. The rest would be driven by lorry to Italy.
Now they simply aren’t being allowed to land their catch in France and are desperately seeking another route, looking perhaps at getting the lobster and crabs to continental Europe via England. “It used to take a few hours to get it there, it will take days now,” said Carvalho. “We don’t know how to do what we used to do. All this is because of Brexit and we didn’t even get a say in it.”
Jack Bailey, 24, the skipper of the 10-metre lobster and crab boat White Waters, said there wasn’t a lot of money to be made from fishing at the moment.
“My grandad was a fisherman, my dad was a fisherman. It’s in the family. I’ve started to think to myself, would I have been better off staying at school and getting a trade behind me. It’s a sticky one.”
He reckons the profit from his catches has been down 30% this year on the average for the last few. That’s a big chunk of your money,” he said. “I’m just about covering my costs.
“I haven’t landed this year in France. Last year it was once every seven or 10 days. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen. I wasn’t for Brexit but now I’d like France to exit the EU – then Jersey and France would be able to work it out themselves. I just hope there is a fishing industry left after this.”
While the French boats were blockading St Helier harbour, the Jersey fisher Jason Bonhomme tried to land a catch of cuttlefish over at Carteret in Normandy.
He was not allowed to land and was forced to turn back. He gave away the whole catch – 400kg – on St Catherine’s breakwater after posting a message on social media inviting people to bring bags and buckets and take it away for free. “Shame to see it spoil,” he said.
Stephen Vinney, 54, who owns a boat called Progress, expressed frustration that it is the French fishers rather than the Jersey ones who have been making the headlines.
“We’re suffering far more than they are,” he said. “They have EU subsidy given to take the sting out of Brexit. Jersey has had nothing in support.”
As well as fishing for crabs and lobster, one of Vinney’s key catches is scallop. “Our scallop season should be in full flight,” he said. “It’s not.”
“Because of the UK leaving the EU, our scallops and whelks, which are a big part of our fishery, can’t be landed into France directly. They need testing and health certificates. At the same time, French fleets are putting more effort into our waters than they have for years, catching the same scallops out of our waters and landing them into France. They can dig my spuds in my garden but I can’t.”
He argued that the island was effectively a post-Brexit test case. “Jersey is being used as a guinea pig in imposing the licensing regime on the French. Eyes are on Jersey and Boris [Johnson] is putting pressure on Jersey to stand firm.”
Vinney is worried about the future. “It’s not a job; it’s a way of life. A lot of Jersey boats have sold up. We are losing fishermen we won’t get back into the fleet. We are getting squeezed out.”
Toby Greatbatch, 31, has stopped working as a fisher after 13 years. He has a nine-month-old baby and could no longer be sure the work was there to support the child.
He was preparing scallops he had hand-dived for off the east coast of Jersey and tipping live brown crab he had bought from another fisher into a boiler. He sells the scallops and crab meat at market stall.
“Brexit and Covid has made it too difficult to be a fisherman,” he said. “When you can’t export it, there’s no point in catching it. I think I’ve found my niche doing this and can’t see myself going back to it.”