UK fishing boat still detained in France despite minister’s claim

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Photo taken on March 24, 2020 shows fishing vessels near a port in Yinhai district of Beihai, south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Ports in the city have resumed work to improve fish production amid epidemic prevention and control. Photo by Li Junguang/People’s Daily Online
Photo by Li Junguang/People’s Daily Online

A British vessel caught in a diplomatic storm between France and Britain remains stuck in Le Havre despite the London government’s environment secretary having suggested it had been released.

George Eustice said on Tuesday morning that he understood the Cornelis Gert Jan had been freed following an “administrative confusion.”

But Downing Street was later forced to clarify that it “remains in port” after it emerged the Scottish-registered scallop dredger had not been released.

The vessel was detained during a row in which France threatened to block British boats from landing their catches in French ports and tighten customs checks.

Paris alleges the British authorities have failed to grant licences to French boats to fish in British waters after Brexit. However, Paris held off threats to impose punitive action against British vessels that could have been implemented on Tuesday.

Andrew Brown, the head of public affairs for Macduff Shellfish, which owns the vessel, said: “Our understanding is that the Cornelis remains held at Le Havre at least until the hearing at Rouen scheduled for tomorrow.”

Officials also admitted that the vessel remained subject to detention by French authorities.

GPS co-ordinates put the Cornelis as remaining in Le Havre on Tuesday afternoon.

During a morning round of broadcast interviews, Mr Eustice told Sky News: “I understand that vessel has now been released and I think there’s going to need to be some further discussions, clearly there was an administrative error at some point.”

He subsequently described the issue on BBC Breakfast as an “administrative confusion” due to a change in the engine.

Officials later suggested there had been a miscommunication.

The captain of the Cornelis Gert Jan vessel, understood to be an Irish national, was detained in Le Havre during the row and was told he faces a court hearing in August next year.

French authorities allege the dredger did not have a licence, a claim Macduff Shellfish denies.

The EU said British authorities withdrew the licence on March 1.

As talks to settle the row over fishing licences continue, fishermen along France’s northern coast have described their frustration at being refused access to British waters.

Jeremy Lhomel, a fisherman based in the coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, said the inability to access British waters was catastrophic for those earning a living from fishing in the Channel.

He told the PA news agency: “This situation with the licences, we think there’s a lot of bad faith because we are small family boats, we have three, four people on board, we don’t empty the sea, we deal with very few fish, and for us the situation is catastrophic because we can no longer access these waters.

“For us it’s vital to get these licences so that we can fish; it’s a matter of life or death.”

Lhomel said fishermen working from the port of Boulogne who have not received licences have lost access to “half of the Strait” of Dover – the narrowest part of the Channel.

“We can no longer fish properly,” he said angrily.

The British Government has said it is issuing licences to vessels that can prove they have previously fished in British waters.

But Lhomel insisted he had sent British authorities all the evidence possible and noted that small boats lacked relevant tracking systems to prove their presence in British waters.

The fisherman, who is in his 30s, pointed out that all Boulogne fishing boats had previously been in British waters because of their proximity.

“How can the British Government say that we never fished in British waters?” he said, repeating that it was an act of “bad faith” on the part of the British.

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