Resolving tensions

Since part of the French fleet adopted seine netting as its main fishing method, there has been tension between the fly-shooters and small scale fishermen, and Nouvelle-Aquitaine’s waters off south-western France are no exception.

‘Working alongside the seine netters has been forced on us,’ said Patrick Lafargue, president of the CRPMEM Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

‘This is a very effective fishing method. Ifremer has documented this. These are also some of the largest vessels working in the Bay of Biscay, with a high fishing capacity. The small-scale fishermen report that each seine haul endangers stocks, and, for instance, this is particularly clear during the red mullet season.’

Dropping the dahn at the end of a fleet of nets. Image: M. Meyer-Doye / Lancer du fanion à l’extrémité d’un jeu de filets

He commented that the situation is tense, but until now it has been possible find some common ground and resolve gear conflicts.

‘In 2013, we succeeded in putting in place a regulation prohibiting seine netting in former Aquitaine’s waters. In 2015, the same decision was taken for the Charente-Maritime waters,’ he said, adding that the Aquitaine and Poitou-Charentes regions were merged to become Nouvelle-Aquitaine in 2017.

The Port of Royan on the Gironde estuary. Image: A Balazuc / Le port de Royan donnant sur l’estuaire de la Gironde

‘But this was then challenged in court and the orders became invalid in 2017, for technical reasons. So there is no longer a specific regulation for this method, even though fishermen in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region definitely want this,’ he said.

Discussions between stakeholders and the authorities got underway in 2018, with the aim of precluding gear conflicts within the 12-mile zone and adhering to precautionary principles in managing Nouvelle-Aquitaine’s fisheries.

Last year the Nouvelle-Aquitaine industry’s representatives voted in favour of closing waters south of 45°35’N to seine netting, with a derogation for three seine netters at any one time allowed to operate north of the line.

The port of La Cotinière on the island of Óleron. Image: A Balazuc / Le port de La Cotinière sur l’île d’Oléron

In January 2020, members of the board of the Gironde Estuary Marine Natural Park and the Pertuis sea area were also opposed to allowing more than three seiners fish north of the 45°35’N.

‘While we had initially intended to prohibit seine netting, a compromise was found. The problem now is that the prefectural decree making this compulsory has still not been made, and the situation remains tense at sea. Fishermen and their representatives have warned that a real conflict could occur at sea, and we deplore the fact that support is not being provided.’

Covid effects

Patrick Lafargue said that as in most regions of France, Nouvelle-Aquitaine’s auctions were closed during the initial stages of the pandemic, with the lack of outlets for catches paralysing the sector.

A gradual re-opening took place, and he said that socio-economic measures have cushioned the effects to some extent, allowing for a return to minimum fishing activity

The Port of Royan. Image: A Balazuc / Le Port de Royan

‘During lockdown some fishermen kept their boats at the quayside because of the health risks, while others opted to work together so that fish would be available on a continuous basis, aiming to avoid flooding the market and organise an effective rotation,’ he said.

‘Direct sales to consumers have not suffered during the lockdown, and this has developed as fishermen have expanded their sales networks, diversified into new markets and direct selling stalls have been successful.’

Sales patterns have changes, as there are neither tourists nor restaurants, so sales of species such as meagre and sea bass – popular with restaurants – have been difficult as prices dropped significantly.

‘A few restaurants have been able to develop take-away meals, and now the reopening of restaurants has seen things return to something close to normal,’ he said.

‘In general, since the end of the lockdown, I have seen that consumers have changed their buying habits for food products. I have the impression that French people try to source a lot of their food from local producers, and now that people can’t eat in restaurants as regularly as before, those who live along the coast and tourists are buying more directly from fishermen.’

Minister for the Sea Annick Girardin / Ministre de la Mer Annick Girardin

A French Minister for the Sea

The post of Minister for the Sea was revived (after having been abolished in 1988) during a cabinet reshuffle this summer as Annick Girardin was appointed​.

‘I’m pleased that there is once again a ministry dedicated to the sea, and logically, this takes charge of fisheries,’ Patrick Lafargue said.

‘I am satisfied with this because fisheries issues should be dealt with more quickly and consultation will probably be easier than it was when fisheries integrated the Ministry of Agriculture, as before. Fishing could have been integrated the Ministry of Ecology but that would undoubtedly have made certain aspects more complicated. Today, I feel more at ease with a ministry that has its own maritime vision. But we mustn’t get carried away. Let’s wait and see.’