Backlash in Milford-sur-Mer: British and French fishermen are in dispute again. Nick Cohen in Milford Haven and Leonard Doyle in Concarneau hear the reasons

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The Independent Online
The Welsh port of Milford Haven, which British trawlermen say has become 'a French fishing colony', was blockaded by fishing boats yesterday.

Six trawlers from Fleetwood, Lowestoft and Northern Ireland, and the David John, one of the few local boats still operating from the port, ignored a ban on direct action issued by national fishermen's leaders on Friday and closed the entrance to the harbour. They forced the Milford-based French trawler Jane de Lorraine, carrying 40 tonnes of fish, to anchor in the Cleddau estuary and trapped three other French vessels inside the port.

The port authority issued writs against three vessels blocking the port from inside the harbour. At 12.30pm it was decided to lift the blockade but it took eight hours for the boats in front of the dock gates on the seaward side to clear a passage for the French trawlers.

Scores of police, with a helicopter overhead, were at the dockside to prevent a repetition of the trouble on Wednesday when local shellfishermen broke into the harbour market and overturned boxes of French fish.

Anger is focused on Milford because it is, to all intents and purposes, a French port. At least 90 per cent of the cod landed there is caught by French crews from French-owned trawlers in the waters from Cornwall to the Western Isles.

Twelve French vessels are based at Milford Haven - two over 200ft and all over 60ft.

The French gain six extra fishing days a fortnight in what were once British waters by staying in the Welsh port and avoiding having to return to Brittany every time they fill their holds. The remains of what was once the biggest British fleet in Wales consists, by contrast, of two 60- footers and a few 40-footers run by part- time crews.

Almost all the fish landed is packed by French companies and sent for sale in France. Phil Brooks, chairman of the South Wales Shell Fishermen's Association, said it was almost impossible to buy wet fish in Pembrokeshire, even though the seas off South Wales are full of cod this spring. Fish-and-chip shops in Swansea, the nearest city, have to order their cod from London.

Resentment at the French presence first boiled over on Wednesday morning after a lorry carrying Welsh lobster and crabs was attacked in France. This led fish merchants to cancel their runs of Welsh shellfish to the Continent.

'Our exports to France and Spain stopped and our boats were laid up because of a yob element in France, while the French were over here fishing our waters because our Government had given away our fish quotas in Brussels,' Mr Brooks said.

David Dean, skipper of the Old Tom, one of the few British trawlers left, agreed. 'Every fish the French catch off Britain is one the British can't have,' he said. 'We keep hearing John Major say he will never accept a federal Europe, but the Government has already sold the British fisherman down the river.'

Mr Brooks, a former agricultural scientist, says he hates violence. He told the police and the harbour authorities on Wednesday that he was going to organise a 'peaceful riot'. He told French sailors to stay aboard their ships out of harm's way. After French managers declined an invitation to talk, he went into the fish market where British workers were grading the French catch.

'We're coming in, boys,' he told them. 'I'd get out of the way if I were you.' 'Right,' replied a nervous processor looking at the angry crowd. 'I think it's time we had a tea break.' The shellfishermen overturned mounds of fish piled up to the ceiling in 6ft-long crates. It was all over in 10 minutes and was, Mr Brooks admits, staged mainly for television cameramen, one of whom asked if the fishermen could 'riot' again so he could get some better shots.

Yesterday, fears of both the police and fishermen that 'local hooligans' would jump on the bandwagon and cause real violence were not realised.

The root cause of the crisis is a flood of cheap imports into the EC from Russian trawlers desperate for hard currency. This sparked the first demonstrations in France three weeks ago, when the French blamed Britain for allowing Baltic fish into the EC. British fishermen said the French had also taken the opportunity to attack British exports to France, which are now 15 per cent cheaper because of the devaluation of the pound.

In Concarneau, Brittany, Jos Franch, skipper of the Pere-Yvon, said wholesalers buying Russian fish were 'taking the bread out of our mouths'.

Both British and French fishermen blame Whitehall for failing to force Russian and Norwegian trawlers to observe EC minimum prices. Pascal Beaucoup, a leader of the Breton campaign, said British and Irish fishermen suffered because their governments fail to take fish from the market and turn it into animal feed to keep prices high. 'Cornish fishermen are coming here to sell their fish because they know they can get a proper price for it,' he said.

Last Friday, Richard Banks, chief executive of the British National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, called for a ban on Russian and non-EC imports. 'Dumping has led to the price of cod on the Grimsby docks halving in less than a year,' he said. 'The Russians are desperate for hard currency and will go straight to the agents and processors, who are not going to say no.'

Last week, senior figures in the Seafish Industry Authority - the statutory body representing processors and retailers (who want fish to be as cheap as possible) as well as trawlermen (who do not) - said Britain imported 50 per cent of its fish and had a vested interest in allowing a free market.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries' answer to the glut of fish is fewer British fishermen. 'We are aiming at a 19 per cent reduction in capacity over the next three years,' a spokesman said.

This further infuriates the Milford Haven fishermen, who time and again condemn the Government for failing to stand up for British fishing interests. Mr Brooks has written twice to John Gummer, the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, asking him to meet South Wales fishermen. He said he had not even received a reply.

'We don't really hate the French,' he said. 'They've got wives and kids and mortgages to pay, like us. That's why there hasn't been any serious violence here. If we could get Gummer down to Milford it would be a different matter.'

(Photograph omitted)