A scallop skirmish erupts between French, British boats

It won't be remembered as one of the great naval encounters between France and England but, unlike at the Battle of Trafalgar, this time French mariners felt they won.

Fishermen from rival French and British fleets banged their boats in ill-tempered skirmishes this week over access to the scallop-rich waters off France's northern coast.

French maritime official Ingrid Parrot described the muscular confrontation between 35 French boats and five British ones in international waters on Tuesday morning as "very dangerous," although there were no injuries.

"It was very, very tense," she said. "We really hope things will calm down."

Every year sees problems between French and British fishermen over access to lucrative scallops, she said. But it's usually without the violence that was captured by a French TV crew. Their video showed boats banging hulls and at least one firework rocket being launched.

A British trade group, the South Western Fish Producers Organization, accused French fishermen of putting lives at risk.

"The French might look like heroes to the French coastal communities but it's really awful to put other mariners in danger," said its chief executive, Jim Portus.

He said a window was smashed on one British boat and that another suffered fire damage from a flare.

French law prevents French boats from fishing for scallops during the summer months before Oct. 1, to help preserve the stocks, Parrot said.

But British ships can still fish for the prized delicacies in international waters off the French coast. That makes French crews "feel that the resources are being pillaged, when they are preserving them," Parrot said.

In previous years, the two sides struck deals to limit the scope of British scallop fishing off French waters but haven't managed to do so this year, she said. More talks are expected in mid-September.

"If we let them do what they want, they'll ravage the area," said Anthony Quesnel, captain of "La Rose des Vents," one of the French boats that took part in the effort to shoo away the British vessels on Tuesday.

The video showed smaller French craft huddled around bigger British vessels and several collisions before the British eventually retreated.

"In the end, it's worth it, because they left," Quesnel said. "We won a battle but we haven't won the war."

An EU spokesman, Daniel Rosario, called for a negotiated solution.

"The scallop fishery is regulated at the national level and over the past years common management measures have been agreed between France, the UK and Ireland," he said. "So it is in the interest, first and foremost, of the fishermen that this agreement is in place and we invite the national authorities to resolve any dispute in an amicable way as has been done in the past."


Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.