French maneuvers to undermine the UK’s ecological ambitions

Paris, 15 April 2024  

At a time when the United Kingdom is showing exemplary determination to implement scientific recommendations and international commitments to protect the ocean and is beginning to ban bottom trawling in a few restricted zones of its marine protected areas, an anti-ecological axis formed by the French right and far right is resurfacing in an attempt to bend London and the European Commission and prevent real protection of British waters. In the highest degree of irony, the country that has left the EU is the only one that seriously implements EU rules with regards to the protection of the ocean, ecosystems and the climate.   

Just when the international “Our Ocean” Conference is opening in Athens (15-17th April), the positions defended by the French government, the right and the far right parties are an embarrassment for France, as they show, in the context of 2024 declared the “Year of the Sea” by President Macron and in the run up to the UN Ocean Conference (to be hosted in Nice, on the French Riviera, in June 2025), that France does not simply lag behind on its implementation of true marine protected areas, it is actually thoroughly active in opposing the very principle of marine protection.  

The detrimental position of France is escalading to EU level with the Commission triggering a meeting between EU, French and British services on 15 April. The Financial Times has just revealed that France is indeed launching a dispute with the UK over fishing rights claiming that the restricted trawl bans implemented in British waters breach the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement.  

Emmanuel Macron is showing the world his true anti-ecological stripes.  

Areas closed to bottom trawling within certain UK marine protected areas from 22 March 2024. As this map shows, these bottom trawling bans are targeted at very small, specific areas considered critical for biodiversity, and are spread throughout UK waters. 

Going back in time: ambition before real protection 

For years, the UK, like France and most other European countries, was “doing numbers” by creating vast so-called “protected” marine areas without banning destructive fishing techniques, creating de facto a network of marine areas “to be protected” rather than “actually protected”. In February 2022, at the “One Ocean” Summit organised by Emmanuel Macron in Brest, the United Kingdom, Costa Rica and France jointly launched the “High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People” with the aim of collectively setting the target of protecting 30% of land and sea by 2030 (the so-called “30×30” target).  

A few months later, in December 2022, at the Biodiversity COP15 in Montreal, the international community effectively adopted this “30×30” target. Following this objective, and in line with international recommendations, in February 2023, the European Commission published its “Ocean Action Plan”, recommending that bottom trawling be finally banned in all the EU’s marine areas that are supposed to be protected, starting with Natura 2000 areas designated for habitat conservation “by the end of March 2024”.  

Getting serious on marine protection is more than needed as evidence accumulates to show that Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are persistently no more than just “paper parks” that completely fail to deliver ecological benefits. This is of great climate and biodiversity concern but also democratic as an IPSOS EU survey commissioned by BLOOM shows that 78% of Europeans want truly protected marine areas. 

The European’s most trawled MPA is French 

In a new study, BLOOM’s scientist Raphaël Seguin has just revealed that trawling intensity, i.e. the number of hours trawled per square kilometer, was 1.4 times higher in EU MPAs than outside them in 2023, and that 100% of mega-trawlers over 80 meters in length all operate in European MPAs. In France, fishing fleets are de facto authorized to fish in more than 99% of the French Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) as less than 0.1% of French waters are effectively protected from trawling. BLOOM established a ranking of the most poorly protected MPAs in Europe and showed that the most trawled MPA in Europe is the French “Bay of Biscay” MPA, which alone accounted for over 200,000 hours of trawling in 2023. 


The French government “totally, clearly and firmly” opposed to marine protection and British ambition 

While France, through its Secretary of State for the Sea Hervé Berville, has been hammering its total, clear and firm opposition to ocean protection, the United Kingdom was taking its commitment seriously and implementing it: in January 2021, the British government banned bottom trawling in four marine protected areas. On 22 March 2024, it further announced a ban on bottom trawling in parts of 13 marine protected areas, thus protecting a total of 4,000 km2 of marine ecosystems from one of the most damaging fishing activities there is: bottom trawling.   

But instead of following the UK’s example and taking up the European Commission’s recommendations to finally start protecting the ocean, which is overheated, overexploited and ravaged by destructive fishing (European waters are the most heavily trawled in the world), France has launched a cabal against the UK’s desire to protect its waters.  

An anti-ecological axis stretching from the Macron government to the French far right, already at work sabotaging the Nature Restoration Law in the Summer 2023, has spontaneously re-formed in opposition to the protection of the general interest, the climate and biodiversity. Who benefits from this sudden solidarity on the part of politicians? The trawl industry, as always. The same politicians who abandoned small French fishers during the Brexit negotiations (which only benefited semi-industrial and industrial vessels) and who supported the Dutch destructive practice of demersal seining against the wishes of French fishers to ban it, are mobilising unashamedly to save the technique preferred by the industry, and the only one affected by the British announcement: bottom trawling.  

Contrary to science and a sense of History, which, given the war in Ukraine and the  French budget deficit, is arguing more urgently than ever for the transition of fishing fleets and the gradual phasing out of energy-intensive fishing techniques that depend on public subsidies, such as trawling, the French Delegate Minister for Europe Jean-Noël Barrot even declared that “France supports its fishermen and is resisting these arbitrary decisions by the United Kingdom”! This statement sums up France’s “High Ambition” for the ocean and darkly inaugurates 2024, which Emmanuel Macron has declared the “Year of the Sea”.  

Such comments should prepare minds for the sad spectacle that France will be putting on at the 3rd United Nations Conference on the Oceans, which it will be hosting in Nice in June 2025” commented Claire Nouvian founder of BLOOM.   

Yielding to the industrial lobbies that refuse to close off the slightest marine area, the far right, the conservative right and the Macronist liberal right have thus ignored all issues of social justice and ecological urgency in order to blow on the embers of nationalism, even if it means going to extremes and declaring that “our fishermen will disappear” should even minimal ecological measures be adopted” added Swann Bommier, Head of advocacy at BLOOM. 

Fake discrimination threats, but real protection of trawlers 

In the space of a week, the far right Rassemblement National, the Conservative right Les Républicains and the French government have painted an apocalyptic picture of the situation, suggesting that the closures are “arbitrary” and “potentially discriminatory”, that they alone would jeopardise the future of an entire industry, and that “retaliatory measures” should be considered:  

On 28 March 2024, during a session of the Hauts-de-France Regional Council, the far right Rassemblement National opened hostilities: 

The axe fell. Since 22 March 2024, bottom trawling has been banned in thirteen British marine protected areas. This decision, taken by the UK’s Marine Management Organisation, is a real threat to the French fishing industry. These marine protected areas, which are highly prized by our region’s fishermen, are truly strategic zones (…) It is hard to believe, despite the supposedly ecological motives proclaimed by the British, that the decision to considerably reduce their working space is based solely on a concern to preserve biodiversity. The truth is that behind this ban lies a desire to undermine the production of our French fishermen (…) A diplomatic showdown must be launched immediately. The survival of an entire profession depends on it“. 

The following day, 29 March 2024, the Minister for Europe Jean-Noël Barrot travelled to Boulogne-sur-Mer to discredit the British initiative and fan the embers of nationalism.  

“France supports its fishermen and is resisting these arbitrary decisions by the United Kingdom (…) The next step is to build a coalition with my European counterparts in the countries affected by this type of measures, which affect the interests of fishermen, which, in conjunction with the Commission, will obtain an in-depth examination of the potentially discriminatory aspect of this closure, so that retaliatory measures can be taken if necessary”. 

France’s position was criticised by the Green MEP Caroline Roose 

On Tuesday 2 April 2024, during the France Inter morning radio show, Xavier Bertrand (the President of the Hauts-de-France Region) added in the same apocalyptic and nationalist vein: 

“We have our fishermen who are going to disappear. On 7 February this year, I asked Gabriel Attal {the French Prime Minister} about this issue, saying that we absolutely had to contact the British Prime Minister and say, ‘You’re preventing us from coming to your waters on pretexts that aren’t really true, but the reality is that the British were able to count on the fishermen’s vote for Brexit and today they’re paying the political bill. And in such cases, we have to be prepared to engage in an arm wrestle, and I want to engage in an arm wrestle by saying ‘we can no longer go fishing in your country, so you don’t come and fish in ours'”. 

An underlying threat agitated by the French concerns potential “discrimination” in the frame of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the EU and the UK. However, this deliberately misrepresents the TCA and the actions being taken by the UK. The TCA allows both the EU and the UK to take conservation measures in their own waters (1) as long as these measures apply to fishing vessels from all nations (2) – which the UK’s proposals do. A crucial point that contradicts the anti-ecological nationalist discourse of French politicians is that these closures apply to all vessels, regardless of their flag, as long as they are engaged in bottom trawling. British vessels are therefore subject to the same access restrictions as French vessels. 

It is important to note that the UK’s measures have been specifically based on scientific assessments carried out at every stage of the process including the designations stage which was conducted before Brexit. It is also important to note that the UK is taking action in a number of sites, including some that have little to no impact on French vessels but a large impact on some UK vessels. The idea that the UK is targeting French vessels is therefore absurd – the UK is banning damaging fishing in areas that are supposed to be protected – the vessels impacted are those doing the damaging activity, regardless of their nationality.  

This effort by the French comes in the same week that the UK’s scientific body published its assessment of the sustainability of quotas, which showed that yet again more than half of the catch limits negotiated between the EU and the UK were set at unsustainably high levels. Rampant overfishing, especially by hugely destructive trawling, is ravaging the sea and marine wildlife – the UK, while still guilty of overfishing has at least started doing something to protect some areas. France should, as a self-professed leader in ocean conservation, be pushing to be better, not seeking to undermine those efforts.  

At the height of irresponsibility, the Macronist right, the far right and the conservative right have once again decided to rescue the trawl lobby and work against the interests of citizens by ignoring the unprecedented ecological and social issues of our time” concluded Claire Nouvian. BLOOM gives its full support to the British government and encourages it not to give in to French injunctions to defend the least defensible fisheries of the 21st century: trawling. 


(1) : Article 494 (1) states ‘The Parties shall cooperate with a view to ensuring that fishing activities for shared stocks in their waters are environmentally sustainable in the long term and contribute to achieving economic and social benefits, while fully respecting the rights and obligations of independent coastal States as exercised by the Parties.’

(2) : Article 494 3(f) states ‘applying proportionate and non-discriminatory measures for the conservation of marine living resources and the management of fisheries resources, while preserving the regulatory autonomy of the Parties;’

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