Anatomy of a fall: France disgraces itself by forming an anti-ecological European coalition based on fake news

The French government has just erased what little political credibility it had left on the international stage by leading an anti-ecological coalition against the United Kingdom, based on fake news fabricated by lobbies and left to disseminate, unchecked, by French minister Jean-Noël Barrot. BLOOM has done the fact-checking.  

There is no longer any doubt as to who is the boss of the Ocean. Contrary to what one might believe, it’s not the French State that has sovereignty over its own waters, but the trawl lobby, which defends the most destructive fishing method practiced in Europe.   

Last March, the United Kingdom took the first steps towards truly protecting its waters by banning the worst fishing technique, trawling, in a small part of its ‘protected’ marine areas (which were previously not truly protected). However, the French government simultaneously took up a fight in Brussels and formed a coalition of eight States to oppose what it considers to be intolerable: the protection of the environment and climate announced by our British neighbors. 

This diplomatic cabal, which is doomed to failure from a legal standpoint (the reason given for opening a dispute under the Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement is fallacious), is a response to the dramatization of the issue by the French fishing lobby. Government officials have adopted this rhetoric based on lies and fake news, and BLOOM has done the fact-checking. No, the British decision does not sound the death knell for French and European fishing! BLOOM has calculated that only 67 French vessels (over 15 meters long and using bottom gears) frequent British protected areas, and they spend an average of only… 3.16% of their fishing time there. 

This is the kind of major political embarrassment into which a government controlled by a dishonest lobby can become embroiled. The pathetic diplomatic sequence orchestrated by France, hand in hand with politicians of the right and extreme right, is a sign of the decline of the power of the French State, enslaved to insignificant industrial interests that are working against the very urgent need to defend the ocean, the climate and French artisanal fishers themselves. 

With just a year to go before the third United Nations Conference on the Oceans is held in Nice, the suspense is over after launching the “High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People” at the One Ocean Summit in Brest in February 2022, Emmanuel Macron has disgraced France by launching the European Coalition for the Destruction of the Ocean and the Climate. 

A parade of politicians against ocean and climate protection 

On 22 March 2024, the UK banned mobile bottom towed fishing gear in some specific areas within thirteen British Marine Protected Areas. In the immediate aftermath, far right regional councillors, Xavier Bertrand, President of the Hauts-de-France region and French minister delegate for Europe Jean-Noël Barrot, took up the cause, calling out “arbitrary” and “discriminatory” decisions that would “sound the death knell” for the “French fishing industry“. It would be “the survival of an entire profession” that would be at stake, and he called for “retaliatory measures“, as “our fishers are going to disappear. 

President of the Comité National des Pêches Olivier le Nézet, claimed on TF1 and Twitter that for some fishers in Boulogne-sur-Mer, this decision would impact 100% of their activity, and that “under the disguise of protecting biodiversity, we are going to exclude all European fleet activities from UK waters“. On 7 May on Twitter, he welcomed the meeting of a “special committee on fisheries between the European Commission and the UK” due to convene on 23 May. 

But in the face of those grave statements, what are the facts? Is the bottom trawling ban really “unfounded“? Is it “discriminatory“? Will it “sound the death knell” for French fishers? In response to all these questions, the answer is the same: no. But in the government’s regime of post-truth, orchestrated by the right and the far right, the only thing that truly matters is the continuation of the status quo and the opposition to any measures protecting the ocean. 

The government calls ocean protection an “arbitrary decision” 

On 29 March 2024, the French Minister for Europe, Jean-Noël Barrot, visited Boulogne and expressed his support for fishers, saying that the government would “resist these arbitrary decisions made by the United Kingdom“.   

To begin with, let’s point out that the UK ban only applies to destructive fishing techniques such as bottom trawling, and only in specific areas containing vulnerable ecosystems: reef habitats or rocky areas nesting fragile sponge and coral communities. Cape Bank Marine Protected Area is home to important sea urchin species and a particular type of starfish known as the “cushion star”. Meanwhile, the Haig Fras protected area shelters a wide variety of marine fauna, ranging from jewel anemones that light up in ultraviolet light to solitary corals.   

It is those rocky habitats, which are feeding-zones and shelters for fish populations, that are protected from fishing methods that scrape the seabed and destroy everything in their path. The areas designated by the British government are extremely restricted: a total of 4,000km2, and only 37% of the thirteen targeted Marine Protected Areas’ total surface. Other fishing techniques, such as lines, nets and traps, are still allowed. 

Fake news about alleged “discrimination” against French fishers   

The ban on mobile bottom towed fishing gear applies to all vessels, whether they are sailing under the British, French, Belgian, Dutch, German, Danish or Swedish flags.     

Through the Global Fishing Watch platform, we analysed the fishing effort of all European vessels longer than 15 meters that used mobile bottom towed gear in the thirteen British Marine Protected Areas affected by the byelaw, for the year 2023 (1).   

Far from being “discriminatory”, this ban impacts French, British and Dutch fishers, and, to a lesser extent, Belgian fishers.   

Blackmail by the trawl lobby       

Beyond fishing hours, the number of European vessels over 15 meters that have operated in these thirteen Marine Protected Areas is relatively small: 67 French vessels, 60 British vessels, 50 Dutch vessels and 29 Belgian vessels (2).   

We have estimated the dependency of these 206 vessels on the Marine Protected Areas targeted by the British – the dependency being defined as the percentage of fishing time spent by a vessel in these thirteen Marine Protected Areas against its overall fishing time over the year 2023.   

The British ban has a marginal impact on the activity of European fishers: the vessels affected by this byelaw spent an average of 2.24% of their time there (3). The 67 French vessels over 15 meters long spotted in the British protected areas subject to the ban spent an average of 3.16% of their fishing time there. 

In addition, and contrary to Olivier Le Nézet’s assertion claiming that fishers in Boulogne-sur-Mer would lose 100% of their activity, we can see that over the 206 vessels potentially impacted, only 9 were more than 10% dependent on fishing in these Marine Protected Areas in 2023, and only two of these (one Belgian and one Dutch) are more than 15% dependent. No French vessel over 15 meters in length spends more than 15% of its time in protected areas where mobile bottom towed fishing gear bans have been imposed. 

The French government and the Comité National des Pêches lose all credit     

The mobilisation of the French government and the Comité National des Pêches to undermine the UK’s decision is a sham.   

After this sequence of events, the credit that could have been given to the government and the Comité National des Pêches for initiating the social and ecological transition of the fishing sector has collapsed.   

Indeed, the reduction of the bottom trawling method used by the French fishing fleet should have been on the government’s agenda ever since the publication of the Poséidon report in 2006 by the Prime Minister’s office. A study carried out by scientists from the Institut Agro, AgroParisTech and the EHESS has put the subject back on the agenda, revealing that this transition meets social, environmental and economic challenges.   

Yet despite all the evidence, and in defiance of the facts, the government and the Comité National des Pêches are cultivating denial, having set in motion a misleading communication campaign and large-scale diplomatic manoeuvres to perpetuate this enterprise to destroy the marine ecosystems on which fishermen depend.   

Even though Emmanuel Macron launched the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People with the UK at the One Ocean Summit in Brest in February 2022, calling for states to protect 30% of their waters, France’s current diplomatic manoeuvring against the British government reveals that the government is prepared to undermine the credibility of France’s diplomatic word to please an industrial lobby, a year ahead of hosting the third United Nations Ocean Conference in Nice. Such subjugation to private interests should worry us all. 


To find out more: 

The following table details the average dependence of vessels over 15 meters using mobile bottom towed fishing gear for each of the MPAs concerned by the ban. For all these MPAs, the dependency is less than 4%. One should remember once again that this dependence is greatly overestimated, as we have considered fishing hours over the entire surface of each Marine Protected Area, and not over the zones within them that are actually targeted by this byelaw. 

Regarding the impact of this ban on fishing vessels of less than 15 meters, subject to obtaining specific licenses after the Brexit, we can see on this map from the British Marine Management Organization that most of the areas affected by the ban are included in British territorial waters. 


(1) In the UK and the European Union, all vessels over 15 meters in length are required to activate a GPS/AIS tracking system. Tracking their fishing effort is therefore relatively reliable, making it possible to accurately assess the impact of the UK’s decision for all vessels over 15 meters. 

(2) For vessels under 15 meters, reliable GPS/AIS tracking is impossible. After Brexit, however, we are able to estimate that only 10 EU vessels, all ten French, are impacted by this measure. Indeed, following Brexit, some EU vessels under 15 meters have obtained dedicated licenses to be able to continue fishing in British waters. The European register of vessels with access to UK waters lists just 10 vessels under 15 meters using bottom dragging gear authorized to fish in the UK coastal strip (6-12 nautical mile band). However, most of the areas closed to mobile bottom towed fishing gear off the EU coast lie within this coastal strip, including the Foreland MPA in the English Channel, which is heavily fished by vessels over 15 meters. So, in principle, only 10 vessels under 15 meters are affected by this measure. Nevertheless, without access to their GPS/AIS data, it is impossible to compute the exact dependency of these 10 vessels toward these zones. However, we can reasonably assume that their fishing strategy does not differ fundamentally from the 15, 16 or 17-meter vessels for which we have GPS/AIS tracking. 

(3) Remember that the bottom trawling ban only covers only 37% of the surface area of these MPAs. This computed dependency is therefore greatly overestimated, as we have taken the fishing hours for the entire surface area of each MPA, and not for the small areas actually affected by this measure. 

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