Fishermen bury the hatchet on dry land: Stephen Ward sees two sides coming together on Guernsey

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The Independent Online
GUERNSEY'S fishermen were sitting yesterday in the Green Cafe, under the shadow of the castle, confined to St Peter Port harbour not by the French this time but by an even older enemy, the weather.

Paradoxically, Monday's invasion of St Peter Port by dozens of French fishing boats, greeted initially with resentment and anger, has moved them to a grudging respect.

'It was an impressive show of solidarity,' Bill Ogier, president of the Guernsey Fishermen's Association, said. 'You wouldn't get that sort of solidarity here, or in England.'

To an outsider, it is easier to see what the two sides have in common. They both take to sea, many single-handed, in small boats, well-maintained but ancient beneath the fresh paint.

Their working week is governed by the tides, and they virtually all sell to the French who appreciate spider crabs, lobster and other expensive shellfish more than the average Briton.

The fishermen only get about a quarter of the price charged in the shops, maybe a tenth of the price in a restaurant. On both sides the boats are owned by the skippers, who share the proceeds of the catch between the crews of up to five on the Guernsey side, more on the French. If there is no catch, no one gets paid.

Over the past five years they have shared the same difficulty. The recession means fish prices have not risen, while costs have. The only way to keep pace is to catch more fish, and there is only the same amount in the sea. That is the underlying cause of the tension.

The French claimed that, whether or not this was intended, the agreement between Britain and France last September had meant their catches went down by two-thirds. Neither side will hint at their take-home pay per week, per year or per voyage.

When they met late on Monday night, the leaders of the 150 Guernseymen seemed to recognise for the first time the common ground between the two sides. Before the talks, they had been nodding vigorously as Mr Ogier talked about the French needing a 'shot across the bows' from the Royal Navy.

After the meeting, both sides were talking about dislike of politicians and bureaucrats, 'men in suits and ties who work in offices'. The problem they have is that it is the agreements between men in ties that have legal force.