Going to another “stand-off” with French fishermen or risk breaching Brexit procedures by finding a different way to issue licences are the two ‘Plan Bs’ under consideration by the Environment Minister to avoid extending the current post-Brexit amnesty and allowing "completely free fishing by the French" any longer.
Earlier this year, Jersey’s Government offered to extend the transition period allowing certain French vessels to continue to fish in island waters to the end of September in a bid to calm a stormy dispute over the ability of French boats to fish in Jersey’s territorial waters.
But with just over three weeks to go before the end of the extension, Marine Resources still haven’t received the evidence of the “extent and nature” of previous fishing activity they require to issue licences, the Environment, Housing and Infrastructure Scrutiny panel heard yesterday.
Greg Morel, the Head of Marine Resources and Fisheries at Infrastructure, Housing and Environment (IHE) said that over the last few weeks and months, the team has been working with the EU through London and France to try and gather the necessary data.
Pictured: Greg Morel, the Head of Marine Resources and Fisheries with the island's fisheries protection vessel Norman Le Brocq.
“TCA [the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, ed.] clearly sets out the requirements for vessels to demonstrate a certain amount of activity over a certain time period in our waters. Whilst that was relatively easy to do for larger vessels, which were equipped with this vessel monitoring system that allowed for data to be freely available as to where they are working, it’s much harder for smaller vessels that don’t have this equipment fitted as a regulatory requirement. Some have monitoring systems but some don’t,” he explained at a Scrutiny hearing yesterday.
“It’s been quite a difficult issue to resolve with the EU and the UK and it’s been very hard to move that matter forward in terms of the type of data that was available and the type of data that is acceptable.”
To move forward, Marine Resources have asked the EU to provide additional information from the small vessels’ logbook data. It has not been received yet, but Mr Morel said the team hopes it will arrive soon. He added that he was confident officers would be able to work through the data and issue licences in “quick order” as they have done as much preparatory work as they can.
Pictured: Marine Resources still have not received the information required to issue licences.
In the meantime, Marine Resources will be meeting with the French Fishing Association to help them understand what kind of information is required and consider how they can help provide it in a bid to move the process forward Mr Morel said.
Environment Minister Deputy John Young, however, told the Panel he has also been planning for the eventuality that the data will not be available before 30 September.
He said he was not "keen" to carry on extending the amnesty, which he described as allowing “completely free fishing by the French”, any "longer than necessary", and that a political decision will have to be made as to what to do.
“We could just dig in and refuse and have a stand-off and run the risks of precipitating the sort of events that took place [in May]," he said, but went on to acknowledge that this could set back efforts to rebuild damaged relations with the French.
"There’s been a lot of effort done to try and build those relationships because we have to go on the soft signs that things are more cooperative, we are not getting the complaints that we used to with landing, hostility, or anything of that nature anymore, that has gone away,” he said.
“A decision to just have a stand-off at the end of the month is not a good one,” he acknowledged.
Pictured: The Environment Minister, Deputy John Young, said he was not keen on extending the amnesty "any longer than necessary".
Deputy Young said an alternative to the ‘stand-off’ has been discussed, which would involve using the data the Marine Resources hold to issue licences.
“We do have a certain amount of information available ourselves that we could be using for licensing but unfortunately my understanding of it is this would not be compliant with the procedures in the agreement for us to use this information and would almost certainly lead to us licensing a reduced number of vessels than what we consider if we were to use the logbook data,” he said.
“It’s open to us at the end of September purely to licence on the basis of this other reduced information which we have from our own observations and that decision we will have to take politically, and I will take it with the External Relations Minister and maybe the Chief Minister as well.”
Deputy Young said it was in “everybody’s interest” for the data to be provided, adding that Jersey will be organising a summit with the French authorities to help resolve the issue.
He said: “I honestly think it is both in Jersey’s interest and I believe our neighbours’ that we put ourselves more in control of this situation rather than relying on the very unsatisfactorily position that is going on between the UK and the EU, principally driven by the Northern Ireland issue.”
Meanwhile, External Relations Minister Ian Gorst updated the House of Commons Justice Select Committee in London on Tuesday, when he gave evidence alongside Isle of Man Chief Minister Howard Quayle and Guernsey's External Relations Lead Jonathan Le Le Tocq.
Asked about the "legacy" issues affecting the islands from the UK leaving the EU, Senator Gorst said: "The main issue is fisheries and an understanding across both sides about what was agreed in the TCA, and that is around the licences that need to be issued, and around the nature and extent of what previous fishing was.
"So, that is respecting historic fishing rights, while recognising – in Jersey’s case – that it is now the issuing authority for licences, and the TCA is clear that that is the case and it should make those decisions around those licences.
"And recognising that there is not just an automatic transition from the previous agreement to the new agreement."
Pictured: External Relations Minister Ian Gorst at Westminster on Tuesday afternoon.
He added: "It was extremely difficult, when we thought we had made progress with issuing licences earlier this year – and we are grateful for the support of the British Government – but we don’t ever want to get in that situation again.
"We want to work carefully through what are some quite technical details and what is quite technical data to ensure that the licences we issue do respect those historic fishing rights but is no more and no less.
"Those conversations are happening in a, perhaps, more positively engaged way than they were prior to May. But we in Jersey still don’t have all of the data that we need in order to issue relevant licences. And so we continue to push for the relevant data so we can issue licences. We continue to have those conversations up through Brussels but they are happening and we continue to push for the relevant data.
"We have been really encouraging all parties to make sure that data is delivered."
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