Fish wars: Seven reasons Britain could get that sinking feeling

By Kenny Campbell,
Best for Britain's Director of Communications

Facts aren’t quite the social currency they once were but, given that the UK is threatening to deploy gunboats against foreign fisherfolk, here are a few ‘Did you know?’ nuggets to illustrate some problems with this 19th-century approach to a 21st-century row.

Did you know that … The company which monitors fishing vessels in UK waters is French?

Not only is it French. It is part-owned by the French government, which might prove tricky in the event of fisticuffs in the Channel.

Collecte Localisation Satellites (CLS) won the contract away from plucky British operator Globavista last summer and, in the process, became responsible for monitoring not only foreign vessels in UK waters, but also UK vessels wherever they may roam.

CLS is part-owned by France’s space agency (the Centre National d’Études Spatiales – which answers to the French defence ministry), and a Belgian holding company, Groupe Frère-Bourgeois.

Britannia may think she rules the waves, but she relies on her European friends to tell her what’s going on in the oceans.

Did you know that … France buys more than a quarter of Britain’s fish?

Of course you did, if you’ve been following the bizarre row over British fishing rights.

You’ll know that, in 2019, 27.7 per cent of UK fish – worth £561.1million – was sold to France, and the EU as a whole bought 67.4 per cent of our fish and shellfish production, which was worth a somewhat modest £1.4billion to the British economy.

So, taking on EU fishing vessels would jeopardise two-thirds of the market for our catch. Continental fishing vessels would likely blockade ports as part of their protests, and it’s hard to see Europeans rushing to buy from Britain if the Navy is playing silly buggers with their fishing boats.

Note that, for example, French fishermen blockading French ports would have a limited effect on our fish exports, as only 1 per cent of our foreign fish landings are into French facilities (compared with Norway, where 36 per cent of our foreign-landed catches go). But it would scupper our shellfish and salmon exports and, of course, be disastrous for the general trade between the EU and UK.

Did you know that … Brits hate the fish in British waters?

We do, we so do. The three main species dragged from the seas around our uppity island nation are herring (26 per cent caught by UK vessels, 74 per cent by EU27 vessels), mackerel (57 per cent UK vessels, 43 per cent EU27) and sandeels (1 per cent UK vessels, 99 per cent EU27 vessels). These are largely ‘pelagic’ species – creatures that live at any depth except near the seabed.

When’s the last time you had herring and chips on a Friday night? Or sand eel sandwiches?

The fish we eat are largely ‘demersal’ – they live on or just above the sea floor. It’s cod and haddock that are the biggies, and we import a lot of those. We also import a lot of tuna, and cheap shrimp. 

So, if we go to war over fishing rights, the UK is going to find itself fighting for the right to catch fish we don’t eat, so that we can then not sell them to Europe thanks to a fish war. I mean, it sounds too stupid to happen, and then I think about the last year, and Google ‘eel recipes’, just in case.

Did you know that … Britain and France have defence deals in place which a fish war might just strain a little?

The two Lancaster House Treaties of 2010 committed the UK and France to greater defence and security cooperation.

They were signed at 10 Downing Street by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy – the cooperation on display then providing a bit of a contrast with our present-day Poundshop Churchill, a man who can’t even get foreign leaders to pick up the phone, far less pick up a pen.

The treaties covered a broad range of topics, including equipment, communications, weapons strategies and shared resources, but were surprisingly lacking in detail about what happens if jolly Jack Tars start boarding French fishing boats in the hunt for herring-flavoured contraband.

Lest you think the Brexit vote put paid to such ambitions of cooperation, in October last year the French and British navies signed an agreement to ‘further develop interoperability’.

And just last month, the RAF said it had joined France’s air force in signing the Core Vision Statement, after both nations agreed to deploy a 10,000-strong joint military force in response to shared threats.

After the joint naval announcement, First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin tweeted: ‘Looking forward to future collaboration.’ His optimistic tone suggests the First Sea Lord had not cogitated sufficiently on the threat posed by eels, herring and halfwit politicians.

Did you know that … Britain and France have been engaging in joint exercises to ‘neutralise a hostile neighbour’?


The British-French Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) created an Anglo-French quick-reaction force, as part of the Lancaster House Treaties in 2010. 

Of course, joint exercises are crucial to ensure the smooth running of such a force and, in October last year,Exercise Griffin Strike marked the full operational capability of its naval element.

Griffin Strike saw the task force travel to Faslane, on the Clyde, where it was deployed to stabilise a fictional region and to neutralise the threat of a ‘hostile neighbour’ in the area.

What no one seems to have foreseen is the possibility that the ‘hostile neighbour’ might well turn out to be the very neighbour taking part in Exercise Griffin Strike.

Did you know that … The Royal Navy isn’t exactly over-resourced?

The MoD has four offshore patrol boats available to monitor UK waters, which isn’t a great deal to cover 11,000 miles or so of coastline and the associated wet stuff.

Of course, other vessels can be requisitioned but the fact remains that, good as the Royal Navy is, it really has only about 30 ‘big’ vessels – the odd carrier, a few nuclear subs when they’re not being repaired, 19 frigates and destroyers.

The point here is not that Britain would use nuclear-powered submarines against European trawlers, of course not. But diverting any resources – including manpower and funding – to deal with a local fisheries issue would necessarily curtail UK global ambitions.

For example, before he became known as the Frank Spencer of education, Gavin Williamson was Defence Secretary, and was keen to see global Britain return to the waters ‘east of Suez’, taking a leading role in addressing the geopolitical challenges posed by China and Russia in particular.

If our focus is on stopping Spanish fishermen making off with ‘our’ mackerel, flying the flag in Pacific ports is going to have to take a back seat. You can’t send half a destroyer to defend Manila.

Did you know that … Britain has fought Cod Wars before. And lost every single time

The three 20th-century Cod Wars saw Britain go head-to-head with Iceland over the rights to fish in the waters off Iceland’s coast, in a row that had been cropping up since the 14th century.

You need to know only one fact about these confrontations: Iceland came out on top every time.

Take the hint, Britain, take the sodding hint.

Kenny Campbell
Director of Communication, Best for Britain

Follow Best for Britain on Twitter at @BestforBritain