French fishermen accused of 'endangering' lives of British mariners after 'scallop wars' erupt in English Channel

The prime minister has said Britain is working with France to find an "amicable solution" after French fishermen were accused of endangering the lives of their British counterparts following an extraordinary clash in the English Channel.

Asked about the row during her visit to Nigeria, Theresa May said a peaceful resolution was "what we want and it's what France wants and we will be working on that."

Environment secretary Michael Gove said his "heart went out" to the British fishermen caught up in the clashes, insisting they were fishing "entirely legally".

  • What has happened?

French clashed with their English and Scottish counterparts on Monday night in a row over scallops.

Tensions continued to rise in the early hours of Tuesday morning as 35 French boats appeared to surround five British vessels leading to an angry stand-off.

Rocks, paint pots, flares and cans of oil were thrown, while one boat crashed into the side of a rival trawler.

In a video seen by ITV News filmed from one of the British ships, the fishermen counts 15 French vessels "trying to ram" them.

One of the British boats, the Golden Promise, suffered a broken window, while another sustained fire damage.

  • Why the ruckus over scallops?

The French say they are trying to protect a scallop bed that they accuse the British of over-fishing off the coast of Normandy.

French fishermen are only able to harvest scallops between 1 October to 15 May to allow scallops to breed and preserve stocks.

British fishermen are not governed by the same regulations and can harvest the beds at anytime of year.

A French fisherman said that they were trying to fend off the British boats as "if we leave them to it, they will finish the sector."

The Honeybourne 3, a Scottish scallop dredger, in dock at Shoreham, in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Credit: PA
  • If it's legal, why are the French complaining?

Anthony Quesnel, Captain of 'La Rise des Vents' fishing boat said the differing laws between the two countries mean that the French are left with "the crumbs" when the time comes around for them to legally fish scallops.

"We have quotas, we have hours. They have nothing," Mr Quesnel complained.

"They start working a month before us. And, they leave us the crumbs.

"What we want, is that they come and scrape at the same time as us. In October, like everyone. And, that way there will be no problems."

Meanwhile Dimitri Rogoff, head of a Normandy fishermen's association, said the violent scenes "demonstrate the exasperation of Normandy fishermen in a situation which persists and does not change".

"I urge everyone to avoid these situations that endanger men's lives," he said.

Flares were thrown as tensions rose. Credit: EBU
  • What has the reaction from the UK been?

Speaking in Dover, Mr Gove said Britain had spoken to the French authorities to ensure appropriate policing was in place.

He said: "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."

Sheryll Murray, MP for South East Cornwall, said she urged Mr Gove to raise the issue with his French counterpart after "the French fishermen just took the law into their own hands" following the scallop-based confrontation.

The Conservative MP lost her husband, who was a fisherman, in an accident at sea in 2011.

She branded the fracas "totally unacceptable when British boats are doing nothing wrong, they are allowed to fish there."

Mrs Murray also hit out at the response of the French authorities to the skirmish, branding it a "disgrace".

A spokesperson for the government said it was "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.

"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."

Scallops (once cooked and prepared) are a popular choice in many high-end restaurants. Credit: AP
  • What's being done about it?

The organisation which represents most of the British boats involved in the clash said the French negotiator for the scallop industry said they "regret the altercations that occurred" and they would "not happen again".

Jim Portus, of the South Western Fish Producers Organisation continued that the French fishermen had "endangered life at sea by being unprofessional.

"Fishermen shouldn't do this sort of behaviour.

"The French might look like heroes to the French coastal communities but it's really awful to put other mariners in danger."

Meanwhile Britain's National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations has appealed for calm, saying the dispute should be resolved "by talking around the table", not through altercations "on the high seas where people could be hurt".

Maritime authorities in France have also sought to soothe tensions, calling the showdown as "very dangerous" and expressing hope that "things will calm down".