British boats are legally allowed to fish in the area, which is about 12 nautical miles off the coast of Normandy, near the Bay of Seine.
But 40 French vessels surrounded two British boats on Aug. 28, with rocks and smoke bombs being thrown. A French police boat failed to intervene although it was present on the scene, the British crews said.
The French accuse the British of depleting shellfish stocks in what are “historically French waters,” according to Dimitri Rogoff, the chairman of the French Regional Fisheries’ Committee.
“The French went to contact the British to stop them working and they clashed with each other,” Rogoff told the BBC. “Apparently there was stone-throwing, but no injuries.”
But British boat owner Derek Meredith told The Times of London that their crews were “petrified” by the aggression of the French fishermen.
“The French crews were throwing rocks, shackles, and flares onto the boats,” Meredith said. “They were throwing ropes in the sea to try to stop our boats escaping. Our crews were petrified.
“One of the shackles smashed a galley window, which is serious because it means the boat isn’t watertight. There has been a bit of trouble over the past couple of years but nothing as serious as this.”
Video footage taken from one of the French boats shows that some vessels were damaged during the skirmish.
One video broadcast by French media appears to show a Scottish boat colliding with other vessels.
There have been tensions in the area for about 15 years, with an agreement in place that larger British boats would remain out of the area in exchange for more fishing rights.
The British are allowed to gather scallops all year round, but French law dictates fisherman can only catch scallops between Oct. 1 and May 15.
Rogoff expressed the fishermen’s frustrations in his comments to the BBC.
“For the Brits, it’s an open bar—they fish when they want, where they want, and as much as they want,” Rogoff said. “We don’t want to stop them from fishing, but they could at least wait until Oct. 1 so that we can share.
“Scallops are a flagship product for Normandy, a primary resource, and a highly sensitive issue.”
Jim Portus, chairman of the scallop industry consultation group, called on the Royal Navy to protect the British boats.
“We should have had a Royal Navy Fisheries Protection on standby, at least in the area, to intervene if it had got any worse,” he told Reuters.
“You know, there was a possibility of people getting injured, possibly even killed, because of the actions of the French fishermen—I’m not exaggerating with that,” Portus said.
The Scottish White Fish Producers Association, which represents one of the boats present, called the incident “appalling.”
“We have asked to discuss like grown-ups but non [sic]. Doesn’t bode well for the future. French navy complicit as they stand by and watch the criminal damage,” they tweeted.
Nosheena Mobarik, a Conservative lawmaker for the European Parliament, said in a letter to the European fisheries commissioner that the French aggressiveness was “truly shocking.”
“Fishing vessels have no right to damage the livelihood of other fishing vessels,” Mobarik wrote.
“French fishermen receive considerable quota in British and Scottish waters and they are not subject to this kind of violent reaction by British fishermen,” she added.
The incident ended when the British boats, outnumbered by the French, left the zone and the French returned to port.
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