As shaken West Country crews headed home speaking of a 'wolf pack' of Spanish vessels cutting their allegedly over-long driftnets, the British government resisted calls for stronger powers for European Commission fishery inspectors that might placate the Spaniards.
Michael Jack, Fisheries Minister, said it was for Britain's own inspectors to decide whether UK fishermen were breaching any laws. The Spanish had no right 'to settle things in the most dangerous and outrageous way on the High Seas', he added. The Cornish masters and boat owners strongly denied that their driftnets were longer than the 2.5km European Union limit.
The Pilot Star and the Al Bageergan were outnumbered, threatened and had their nets cut - the former on Wednesday and the latter yesterday. Both sailed for home while two other British boats remained. One of those, the Silver Harvester, was menaced earlier in the week.
The fisheries protection vessel HMS Anglesey was sent to the area to restore calm, but was about 20 miles away at the time of the latest incident. Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior was also sailing for the area, 500 miles off Land's End. The environmental group said its crew would look out for any illegal fishing practices. Conservationists strongly oppose driftnet fishing because it kills large quantities of other species which become caught up in the nets, including dolphins, sharks and diving birds.
Rafael Conde, a senior official in the Spanish fisheries ministry, told the BBC and ITN that some British boats had been using nets longer than the 2.5km the Spaniards use on lines and hooks in the Bay of Biscay. But the Cornish fishermen and their representatives say their driftnets only look longer on the surface because they are regularly interspersed by large gaps which allow dolphins and porpoises to escape. They claim that none have died in the first six weeks of their tuna fishing this year.
Mike Townsend, chief executive of the Cornish Fish Producers' Association, said the Pilot Star's skipper had told him a Spanish fisheries protection vessel which was in the area had given the British boat's position to its Spanish compatriots by radio. The Foreign Office said Britain had protested twice through its embassy in Madrid to the Spanish fishing ministry. A UK fisheries inspector on board HMS Anglesey had inspected the nets of British boats in the Bay, said a Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries spokeswoman.
An Irish vessel has been reported to have had its driftnet cut by a Spanish crew. The British are the smallest tuna fishers in the Bay of Biscay, behind the Spanish, the French and the Irish. 'We don't know exactly what happened yet, or the extent of any damage,' a spokesman in Dublin said. 'We are awaiting a report from the skipper of the trawler on its return to Ireland.'
The Pilot Star skipper, Martin Jones, said that during the attack 11 Spanish boats had surrounded his vessel and their crews 'were shouting, waving and threatening us. They grappled and cut our gear and it was very frightening.' Nets worth tens of thousands of pounds were lost on the two attacked vessels, but the tuna wars between the French and Spanish fleets this year have been still more damaging.
Mr Jack said: 'Unilateral action by individual Spanish fishermen is not the way to settle disputes over this fishery.' That should be left to EU fishery ministers to negotiate.