French and British fisherman have clashed in the English channel, in an ongoing “war” over scallops.
The incident took place 22km off the Normandy coast, where British boats are legally entitled to fish all year round.
French ones are only permitted to do so during the scallop fishing season – which runs from 1 October to 15 May – and for more than a decade tensions have been rising, with the French accusing the Brits of “pillaging” stocks.
On Monday night, about 40 French vessels gathered in protest against their British counterparts and one Brit, who owns two of the Devon-based boats involved, accused the French crews of “throwing rocks, shackles and flares onto the boats”.
Derek Meredith told The Times: “They were throwing ropes in the sea to try and 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.”
Meredith is calling for Royal Navy protection for the British fisherman. He added: “We need our fishery protection vessels to be there to protect us or someone will get hurt.”
The British boats caught up in the events returned to the UK shortly after the clash.
Normandy fishing chief Dimitri Rogoff has addressed the incident, telling Agence France-Presse: “The French went to contact the British to stop them working and they clashed with each other.
“Apparently there was stone-throwing, but no injuries.”
Jim Portus, of the South Western Fish Producers Organisation, described the saga in more detail. He told Press Association: “They started not only hurling abuse but throwing rocks and paint pots and cans of oil, anything to disrupt their activities, their perfectly legal activities.
“One had a bit of fire damage because the French were firing flares into the boat.
“These flares are very, very hot and caused something to catch fire. The fire was dealt with, but this is not good for the industry.
“They are endangering life at sea by being unprofessional. Fishermen shouldn’t do this sort of behaviour.”
Brian Whittington, skipper of the Devon-based trawler Golden Promise which was caught up in the drama, told Sky News: “There were around 80 boats around us by the end of it, so we ended up just running for the hills. It was a bit of an experience.
“They started throwing rocks and shackles and old engine oil – they started throwing flares across the boats, throwing stones and shackles, trying to ram us.
“They put one of my galley windows through, which put the vessel in danger.
“They just wanted to sink us – end of.”
The clash comes following the breakdown of a deal between the warring fisherman.
It was previously agreed that larger British boats wouldn’t fish in the area outside of the fishing season but this year, the French rejected the proposal.
On Wednesday morning, a UK government spokesperson said they were “aware of reports of aggression directed towards UK fishing vessels in an area of the English Channel not under UK control”.
“These vessels were operating in an area they are legally entitled to fish,” they said. “The safety of the UK fleet is our highest priority and we will continue to monitor the presence and activities of vessels in the area.
“We are in contact with industry and the French administration to encourage meaningful dialogue and prevent further incidents from occurring.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: “My heart goes out to the British fishermen who were caught up in the terrible scenes that we saw happen earlier this week.
“They were fishing entirely legally, they had every right to be in those waters and we talked to the French authorities in order to ensure that we have a protocol.
“These are French waters – it’s the responsibility of the French to ensure that those who have a legal right to fish can continue to fish uninterrupted.”
French authorities said they were ready to send more police boats to the north coast to prevent further clashes if necessary.
Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow coastal communities minister, Luke Pollard MP, appeared to back calls for the fisherman to receive Royal Navy protection.
He said: “As Brexit approaches, fishing will become even more contentious as agreements are potentially reset and redrawn.
“The government must answer questions about the absence of the Royal Navy’s fisheries protection vessels or the French Navy, leaving our fishing boats unprotected and allowing a disruption to legal fishing, which put our boats and crews at risk.
“Labour will be seeking reassurances that this won’t happen again.”