Without warning, the Devon and Cornwall fishermen strung their vessels across the harbour at dawn, disrupting ferry services and Royal Navy movements. They are also protesting against the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act, which will make them stay in port for up to 200 days a year when it comes into force later this year.
The French-owned ferry, Quiberon, carrying 147 passengers, was forced to divert to Poole in Dorset at 9am after circling for an hour and a half. Passengers waiting to board the Brittany Ferries vessel for its return journey were taken by coach to Poole.
The action also meant that several loads of British fish destined to be exported to France on the Quiberon were stranded on the quayside in Plymouth.
In a simultaneous protest, tons of rotting fish were dumped on the steps of the offices of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in Plymouth, and in Newlyn and Truro in Cornwall.
The Royal Navy's largest British base at Devonport dockyard, Plymouth, was also affected by the blockade. Three frigates and two Royal Fleet auxiliary vessels were unable to either enter or leave the harbour although a spokesman insisted this had caused minimum disruption. The blockade, which ended at 6.30pm last night, coincided with a visit from John Redwood, the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities. As he drove past the small armada, gathered in small groups in Plymouth Sound, the fishermen sent up flares and blared their horns.
Fishermen stood to lose between pounds 300 and pounds 2,000 as a result of the one-day blockade. Some steamers will have lost three times that amount in journey time to and from the port.
But Mike Townsend, chief executive of the Cornish Fish Producers Association, said it was a stark choice between the loss of earnings the fishing families could ill afford now and bankruptcy in the future.
Alison Pessell, secretary of the Plymouth Trawler Owners Association, hit out at David Curry, the fisheries minister, saying he knew nothing of the industry. 'He's simply using his position as a political stepping stone and has no understanding of our concerns,' he said.
Graham Mills, owner of a netting boat which took part in the blockade, asked: 'How can Mr Curry think he and (John) Gummer and all that lot at MAFF are right and 99.9 per cent of the industry is wrong.'
At one stage, a new pounds 250,000 motor cruiser tried to break the barrier of boats but was confronted by at least 10 vessels and forced to back off. The Torpoint and Cremyll ferry services were also disrupted by the blockade.
Yesterday's blockade came two days after talks between trawlermens' leaders and Mr Curry ended in deadlock when the Government refused to support fishermen's calls for curbs on Russian fish imports.
Many fishermen blame Russian imports for a glut which has hit prices but, before Wednesday's meeting, prices appeared to have recovered around Britain's ports.
But the fishermen, while drawing back from their original call for a total ban on imports, still want some form of strict import controls.
They also want Mr Curry to introduce a pounds 100m decommissioning scheme for fishermen who want to leave the industry.
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