PARIS (Reuters) - French and British fisherman pledged talks to quell a high-seas dispute over access to the scallop-rich seabed in the Baie de Seine after French vessels chased their rivals out of the zone, hurling projectiles and insults.
French vessels rammed British scallop dredgers on Tuesday off the coast of Normandy in an attack English fisherman Ciaran Cardell described as like “a scene out of Vietnam”.
“They just came out and surrounded our fleet, throwing petrol bombs. It was mental,” said Cardell, a scallop fisherman from Cornwall who told Reuters his boat was attacked by about 15 French scallop fishing boats in international waters.
The French are irritated that British fishermen are allowed to harvest scallops, a key earner for France’s Normandy region, throughout the year, while they are prevented from doing so during the summer.
GRAPHIC: Navigating Brexit waters : tmsnrt.rs/2DKUKZD
“This is well beyond legal behavior. We have asked the British government to intervene at a diplomatic level but also to provide protection for our vessels,” Barrie Deas, head of Britain’s fishermen’s organizations, told BBC radio.
British environment minister Michael Gove said the UK boats were fishing legally.
He told BBC television: “We can insist that the French, because they have a legal responsibility to ensure that we don’t have scenes like those we saw earlier this week, ensure that those waters - their territorial waters - are appropriately policed so that legal fishing activity can continue.”
The head of Normandy’s fishing organization Dimitri Rogoff said the attack was spontaneous but acknowledged events spiraled out of control. He said he deplored the violence.
“There should not be any brawling, that could end badly. Our main UK counterpart has proposed we hold talks quickly in France, we’ll receive a UK delegation in the coming days,” Rogoff said on Wednesday.
Scallops - known as Coquille Saint Jacques in France - are one of just a few species whose catch is governed by national rather than European Union regulation.
France bans all scallop dredging between May 15 and October 1, but Britain allows its vessels to operate year-round.
While British ships have no access to French territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles (22 km) off the coast, they can legally operate in the expansive Baie de Seine that stretches from Cherbourg to Dunkirk.
After the row - dubbed the scallop wars - flared up five years ago, French and UK fishermen brokered yearly agreements that saw British fishermen limit their scallop dredging in the Baie de Seine in exchange for some French scallop permits.
“But in the past two years, we feel our British partners do not want to negotiate, maybe because of Brexit,” Rogoff said.
Rogoff said the root of the problem is different economic models. Normandy fishermen, he said, operate mainly small family-owned boats close to their own shores and sell the scallops live. The British fleet, he said, included company-owned “floating factories” which freeze and process the catch onboard.
French fishermen argue that scallops should not be harvested in summer, when they reproduce.
“If everybody dredges for scallops all year round, soon there will be none left,” Rogoff said.
Additional reporting by Michael Holden in London and Michaela Cabrera in Paris; Writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Richard Lough and Andrew Bolton