MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
With just days to go until Britain leaves the European Union's single market and customs union, the U.K. and the EU tonight are reported to be near a trade deal. A major final obstacle has been fishing rights. The small but highly symbolic sector drove a wedge between the 27-nation bloc and the U.K. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited a major French fishing port last week to find out why.
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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Every morning on the English Channel port of Boulogne-sur-Mer, trawlers pull up to the docks after fishing overnight and unload their catch. Fishermen Laurent Merlin has been doing this his whole life.
LAURENT MERLIN: (Through interpreter) It's not like we have the Atlantic Ocean. We are in the Channel. In an hour and a half, I'm in English waters. If that's off limits, we won't make it. We are dead.
BEARDSLEY: Like most of the fishermen here, Merlin gets well over half his catch in British waters, which he says have more fish. The current system is a complex latticework of quotas for each type of fish that can be caught by each country. No deal would mean that EU fleets - which include the Dutch, the Belgians, the Germans - would no longer have access to U.K. waters. World Trade Organization rules would take over with new customs duties, barriers and quotas.
BEN FIRMIN: And if there is no deal, it's going to be a lose-lose outcome for both the French fishermen and the British fishermen.
BEARDSLEY: That's Ben Firmin, who works with the regional fisheries committee in Boulogne. He says there's always been a partnership. The French and other Europeans fish in British waters, and the Brits, he says, sell more than 70% of their haul to Europe.
JEAN PAUL MULOT: The British themselves are not eating that much fish. Yes, the fish and chips, as we know, but for the rest, they are not big consumers.
BEARDSLEY: Jean Paul Mulot, a representative for northern France in Britain, says because British fishermen are so dependent on the European market, they also need an agreement. New barriers and delays would be disastrous to an industry that relies on moving fresh product fast. So how did Brexit come down to fishing? Mulot says the industry isn't the largest or the most strategic, but it's historically and politically charged, especially for Britain and France.
MULOT: These two countries have got maritime history and fish is part of it. Basically, it's the idea that there are small ports, small fishermen, and they are part of the scenery. They are part of our culture.
BEARDSLEY: During the Brexit campaign, Brexiteers equated fishing rights with British sovereignty and claimed that Europeans were stealing their fish. Mulot calls this fake news and says the truth is British fishing communities depended on being able to export their fish to the continent under the EU free-trade rules.
At markets like this one in Paris, a wealth of crustaceans, oysters, fish and octopus is gobbled up by French consumers. Back on the docks in Boulogne, fishermen unload crates of flounder, stingray, crabs and welks, a kind of sea snail. Twenty-eight-year-old Captain Mathieu Pinto bought a boat two years ago and has a huge credit to pay off. He said last week he was ready to fight if he couldn't fish in British waters.
MATHIEU PINTO: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: "They'll realize their mistake when we block the ports and keep their fish from coming here," he says. "Then everybody'll be blocked. That's logical. We're not stupid."
It looks like it won't come to that. Tonight, French media report negotiators are nearing a deal on fish quotas, smoothing the way for an overall trade agreement between Britain and its former partners in the European Union.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Boulogne-sur-Mer.
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