French fishermen have declared that they would rather die fighting than allow a fully approved offshore wind farm to be built off Brittany, and have vowed to take direct action to prevent construction.

The row has led the French wind industry to write to President Emmanuel Macron, warning that it is being “held hostage to sterile debates’ led by organisations “stirring up false fears’ about renewable energy.

Leaders of the local Brittany Regional Fisheries Committee have warned they will stop Iberdrola’s 496MW Saint-Brieuc project from going ahead if the authorities do not do so, claiming that it poses a threat to the livelihoods of local fishermen by destroying a prolific scallop bed.

If the project — which is due to begin construction in the spring — is not cancelled, the fishermen “will do all they can to prevent a project that does not respect the sea and seafarers”, said the committee chairman, Alain Coudray. “We’ve been nice so far. We are going to be a bit less so from now on.”

Committee member Gregory Le Drougmaguet added: “Our leaders have been clear. If they don’t get answers to their question, then there cannot be a wind farm. The fishermen cannot let this bay be developed. They would rather die fighting against this project than let it happen.”

Recharge understands that this means fishermen will take direct action to prevent turbines from being installed.

Local newspaper Ouest France warned last week that “the situation could become tense again in the coming weeks”, following an incident in May when 60 fishing boats prevented a vessel from carrying out surveys related to the project.

The fishermen’s claims have been refuted in an open letter signed by the French wind energy association France Energie Eolienne, the renewables body Syndicat des energies renouvelables, regional presidents, elected officials, local authority representatives, environmental activists and other bodies, which have reaffirmed the essential role played by wind in France’s energy transition.

“The subject of renewable energies, and wind power in particular, is increasingly being held hostage to sterile debates, led by organisations opposed to the energy transition and by political actors who manipulate public opinion by stirring up false fears,” said the letter to President Macron. “By encouraging the production and dissemination of false information, these organisations and personalities seek to set the French against each other.”

The developer, Ailes Marines — a company wholly owned by Spanish wind giant Iberdrola — told Recharge that it wanted to “clarify many of the assertions and disinformation” that are regularly expressed about the offshore wind farm.

The developer said the original 180sq km area put out to tender by the government in 2011 in the Bay of Saint-Brieuc, was later reduced to 75sq km in order to minimise the visual impact and reduce its impact on the commercial exploitation of scallops.

Ailes Marines said it avoided the main scallop deposit, located in the southern part of the tender area, by choosing to locate its €2.4bn ($2.72bn) project 6km further north, on part of a secondary scallop deposit called Gisement du Large. “The project has been designed in such a way as to enable navigation and all types of fishing activities to be maintained within the wind farm.”

It said the processes as defined in the regulations governing the development of French offshore wind farms are “very demanding”. These included the completion of an “extremely detailed and comprehensive impact study” carried out for the project between 2012 and 2015, prior to the successful planning application.

The developer said since that date, and in accordance with the prefectural authorisations, “numerous environmental follow-ups at sea and on land have been carried out”. It said that “on the basis of existing scientific data, in particular public scientific inventories, the initial state study of the site did not reveal any coral presence on the 75sq km site area of the offshore wind farm”.

It added that preliminary results from several large-scale studies “show that the effects of the foundation pile installation works are compatible with the normal life cycle of the species studied, in particular scallops, prawns and cuttlefish”.

Local fishermen dispute this and argue that more analysis needs to be carried out.

“The non-respect of the commitments made to local actors and the contemptuous attitude of this company are unacceptable and make more legitimate the fight waged on this project for many years by the fishermen to preserve the marine environment,” said the fisheries committee last week.

Saint-Brieuc was awarded to the Ailes Marines consortium in a French government tender in 2012, but delayed by a legal challenge after the award was contested by an environmental protection association and a rival company. In 2019, the Conseil d’Etat, France’s supreme administrative court allowed the project to proceed, rejecting appeals against Saint-Brieuc by ruling that criticism regarding the legality of Ailes Marines’ operating license was unfounded.

A final investment decision to develop Saint-Brieuc was taken by Iberdrola in early March after it acquired 100% ownership of Ailes Marines. Turbine OEM Siemens Gamesa will supply 62 of its SG 8.0-167 DD turbines for the project from a new factory in Le Havre.

Saint-Brieuc is among a clutch of early projects that suffered regulatory delays, holding back offshore wind development off the French coast. The EDF-led 480MW Saint-Nazaire project is due to enter service in 2022 , meaning France will enter the commercial-scale offshore wind era years later than planned.

The French government hopes improvements to the regulatory framework and competitive tendering process will spur the country to between 5.2GW and 6.2GW by 2028 , with floating as well as fixed-bottom projects playing a significant role, in proposals criticised as too modest by the French wind industry.

In an effort to limit the legal disputes against offshore wind farms the French government has passed legislation remodelling the tendering process. Some of the changes have already been implemented for the tender process for a 600MW array off Dunkirk in northern France held last year, and are completely in place for the first time for this year's 1GW fixed-bottom Normandy tender, and the subsequent 250MW floating wind rounds off Brittany planned for 2021 and in the Mediterranean Sea, where two 250MW auctions are planned for 2022.

Another 1GW in bottom-fixed off the southern Atlantic coast is scheduled to be tendered next year or in 2022, and a further 1GW in fixed offshore at a yet-undisclosed location in 2023.

The dispute comes at a time of heightened tensions between Britain and France in so-called ‘scallop wars’ over fishing rights as the UK attempts to restrict access to its waters in last-ditch Brexit trade talks. The EU has demanded the UK continues to allow European vessels access to UK fishing grounds while French fishermen have warned they will not accept being locked out of UK waters.

The fishermen’s association from the nearby British island of Jersey is supporting their French counterparts’ opposition to Saint-Brieuc, arguing that the project would push French fishing boats out of their territorial waters and into UK waters.