Negotiation in the news: In a skirmish over scallops, it’s the French versus the British

How a negotiation impasse triggered conflict on the high seas.

By on / Dispute Resolution

When parties are fighting for scarce resources, disputes can become intense. Negotiation is often the answer, but agreements may need to be continually revisited to keep the peace. That’s the main takeaway from the dispute that erupted in the English Channel between French and British fishermen this August.

Stormy waters

In Europe, the European Union sets fishing regulations for most species of seafood, but individual nations govern the catch of scallops by their fishermen.

French scallop fishermen generally operate small, family-owned boats close to shore and sell the scallops they dredge live, Dmitri Rogoff, the head of Normandy’s fishing organization, told Reuters. To prevent overfishing, France bans its fishermen from dredging scallops between May 15 and October 1.

By contrast, the British fleet includes larger ships that dredge scallops in deeper international waters, then freeze and process the catch onboard. In contrast to France, the United Kingdom allows British fishermen to dredge scallops year-round. British vessels can operate in the expansive Baie de la Seine, a 40-mile French inlet of the English Channel, as long as they stay 12 miles from the French coast.

The French fishermen have long resented the presence of British boats in the bay, urging them to join in halting scallop dredging during the summer to allow stocks to replenish. Frustrations escalated in 2012, when about 40 French boats tried to scare away five British vessels by surrounding and banging into them.

A leaky agreement

In response to the escalating tensions, fishermen from the two sides began negotiating annual agreements that limit large British ships from dredging scallops in the Baie de la Seine and give a number of scallop permits to the French.

However, the agreement notably did not include restrictions on small British ships. The French say that the British have “undermined the spirit of the deal by sending more and more small vessels” to the area over the past couple of years, according to Reuters. Rogoff claims that British fishermen have ramped up scallop trawling and avoided renegotiation in anticipation of losing access to the Baie de la Seine after the United Kingdom exits the European Union in 2019. French fisherman Anthony Quesnel complained to Agence France-Presse that the British scallop fishermen “work a month earlier than us and they leave us the crumbs.”

Fishing for a solution

This August, French frustration with British fishing reached a boiling point: A French TV crew captured video of approximately 35 French boats banging the hulls of about five British scallop boats and setting off smoke bombs. No one was injured in the clash, but the British asked the Royal Navy for protection.

The tension prompted the nations’ agriculture ministers to agree to get back to the bargaining table. In the interim, small British ships promised not to forage in the Baie. The two nations negotiated an agreement that would grant British fishermen “reasonable compensation” for agreeing not to enter French waters, according to the Telegraph. During a meeting on September 7, industry leaders were unable to decide on the amount of compensation owed to the British, but talks were expected to continue the following week.

Avoiding an all-too-common tragedy

To understand the factors at play in the so-called Scallop Wars, it helps to look at it in light of a type of social dilemma that ecologist Garrett Hardin referred to as “the tragedy of the commons.” In such social dilemmas, each member of a group works against the common good by taking as much of a shared, scarce resource as it can. When all members act in a self-interested manner, the resource is depleted, and everyone suffers. Therefore, individual members face a dilemma between claiming as much as possible for themselves and restricting their behavior to contribute to the long-term survival of the resource.

Unfortunately, social dilemmas can be notoriously difficult to resolve because of parties’ self-serving interpretations of what would constitute a fair agreement. Overfishing crises throughout the world are examples of real-life social dilemmas that were not resolved successfully. It’s unusual for parties to police themselves, as the French have, to allow the resource to replenish.

Because social dilemmas often are exacerbated by parties’ self-serving fairness interpretations, they frequently can be resolved by enlisting a neutral third party chosen by all members to make a decision or provide counsel about what would constitute a fair settlement. Formal mediation and arbitration also can be effective at resolving social dilemmas.

In the case of the Baie de la Seine dispute, negotiated agreements succeeded for a time at satisfying the parties involved. Hostilities broke out after the most recent agreement lapsed and the French viewed the British as violating the spirit of the agreement. Thus, the story illustrates the importance of meeting to renegotiate agreements well before they expire and adjusting them to reflect changed circumstances and new problems that have arisen.

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