LONDON — French fishermen have been accused of acting like “maritime gangsters” after skirmishing with their British counterparts over access to scallops in the English Channel.
Mike Park, the chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, said flares were launched at British vessels that were legally entitled to fish off the north coast of France.
“We’re fishing legally and then we have bullies, the French, trying to push us back,” Park said. “It's piracy, they’re harassing our vessels."
Video footage documenting the clash early Tuesday showed boats colliding in the English Channel. Authorities said 35 French boats and five British ones were involved in the confrontation.
The dispute centers on access to scallops in waters off the French coast of Normandy, an area known for its rich stock of shellfish. The skirmishes occurred more than 12 nautical miles out to sea.
French law prevents the country's boats from fishing for scallops during the summer months before Oct. 1, to help preserve the stocks, French maritime official Ingrid Parrot told The Associated Press.
But British ships can still fish for the prized delicacies in international waters off the French coast.
French fishermen say this is unfair and that the British are depleting the stocks.
In recent years, British vessels more than 49 feet agreed not to enter the French fishing waters in exchange for an allocation of days at sea. However, negotiations to secure a deal have broken down.
The U.K. government defended the presence of British vessels, saying they had “every right to be in those waters.”
But Anthony Quesnel, a captain of one of the French fishing vessels involved in the confrontation told France 3 TV, "We're trying to get rid of the English, because if we let them get away with it, they will clear out the whole area,"
“The English come and massacre them,” added Franck Enault, a fisherman in the Normandy port of Trouville-sur-Mer. “They destroy them and it means we lose out for the season,” he said, explaining that 90 percent of his revenue comes from scallops.
Quesnel said that "there will be no problems" if the British fishermen returned in October.
But Park said the U.K. boats now faced being "harassed by maritime gangsters."
Parrot, the French official, said that while no injuries were reported, the clashes were "very dangerous." She added that French maritime authorities "really hope things will calm down."
With Brexit looming, it remains unclear how the U.K. will negotiate its fishing policies with other European nations after it leaves the union next March.
The U.K.’s fishing industry accounts for less than 0.5 percent of its GDP but has nevertheless become a symbol of resistance to what many believe are overbearing E.U. regulations.
A government proposal published last month said the U.K. should have full control over its waters and the ability to set its own quotas for U.K.-boats. But the European Union is unlikely to readily agree to such plans.
British fishermen have long lamented the imbalance in the amount of fish caught by British and E.U. vessels in each other’s waters. According to U.K. government data, E.U. vessels caught 683,000 tons of fish in U.K. waters in 2015 — but British vessels caught only 111,000 in E.U. member states’ seas.
This is not the first time that the U.K. has seen negotiations over fisheries turn into full-blown confrontations.
During the 1970s, relations between the U.K. and Iceland rapidly deteriorated over access to cod stocks in the North Atlantic. At the height of the so-called Cod Wars, the British Royal Navy was deployed to protect U.K. trawlers as they fished in disputed waters.
There were several reports of vessels ramming into other boats. In 1975, an Icelandic gunboat opened fire at unarmed British fishery support vessels. NATO was eventually called in to resolve the dispute.