French back down in fishing dispute: Apology given as ban on UK catches is lifted

FRENCH fishermen backed down last night in their territorial dispute with Britain after pressure from their new government, which was anxious not to appear to be flouting EC rules.

In a statement yesterday, the fishermen lifted a ban on British fish landing at ports in Normandy, and apologised for an incident last weekend when fishermen boarded a Royal Navy ship in Cherbourg, and burnt the British flag.

The statement, issued in Cherbourg by Beatrice Harmel, general secretary of the Lower Normandy fishermen's association, did not promise that French shellfishermen would cease fishing illegally in British territorial waters off Alderney, but Guernsey fisheries officials believed it was significant that there have been no attempts this week to place pots illegally.

The French fishermen, from ports along the Normandy coast, had banned English and Channel Islands fishing boats from landing their catches since last week in protest at not being allowed to fish in Schole Bank, a disputed area of water off Alderney. They had threatened violence and loss of business against any local fishmonger buying British fish.

British territorial waters in the Schole Bank area were defined in a treaty signed between Britain and France in September. That agreement allowed specified shellfishermen from France to continue to put their pots on part of the bank until 2010, even though it is less than six miles off Alderney, administered from Guernsey and therefore British for the purposes of defining territory.

But the French had been fishing for crab in a wider area, placing between 500 and 1,000 illegal crab pots. To counter this, Royal Navy fishery protection vessels had been enforcing the territory, which in turn provoked the French into confrontation.