The 300-strong Spanish fishing fleet uses the traditional rod-and- line method of fishing. The British, French and Irish use drift nets. The Spanish claim the nets unfairly catch large numbers of tuna; French, British and Irish fishermen deny it.
The first attack occurred at 6am on Wednesday. Eleven Spanish fishing boats surrounded the Pilot Star - a trawler based in Newlyn, Cornwall.
Crew from the Spanish ships began hauling in the nets of the Pilot Star and, wielding axes, cut them up, weighted them and cast them back into the sea, destroying 17 nets worth pounds 30,000.
'They descended on the boats like a wolf pack,' said Mike Townsend, spokesman for the Cornish Fish Producers' Organisation. 'I would not be surprised if there were another incident. These guys are out of control.'
He said: 'It's a bit rich coming from a nation that holds the record for illegal fishing, for using illegal nets and for catching under-sized fish. All our nets are legal and conservation-friendly.
'They are accusing us of breaking the regulations so it's up to them to prove it. I can't get over their hypocrisy over the fishing regulations - I don't think they've even read one.'
He also attacked the 'lack of enforcement' of fishing regulations by the Spanish authorities.
He said: 'The Spanish do not enforce the regulations on their own boats and yet they seem hell- bent on forcing their interpretation of the regulations in international waters.
'I think they are bloody greedy. All they want to do is hog a huge fishery for themselves.'
John Lavers, engineer on the Pilot Star, said: 'We were terrified - their ships are 25 metres long and ours is only 16 so at any time they could have cut us in two. There was a Spanish fishery protection vessel around and they were relaying our position to them so they could find us.' HMS Anglesey, a Royal Navy fishery protection vessel, went to the aid of the Pilot Star and to prevent further attacks on British ships. After the attack, the Pilot Star set sail for Newlyn and is expected back at 3pm tomorrow.
However, the presence of HMS Anglesey did not prevent another attack. Yesterday morning the Al Bageergan was attacked in the Bay of Biscay and some of its netting destroyed.
'The Anglesey was staying with the rest of the fleet and was trying to protect them. But it cannot do it properly because the trawlers are so spread out and the Spanish fleet has split into small groups,' said Mr Lavers.
John Hicks, skipper of the Ben My Chree - 'girl of my dreams' in Cornish - returned from the Bay of Biscay yesterday. He said: 'A Spanish fishery protection vessel - the Cheru - came alongside us and told us to go back to England for our own safety. The captain said: 'The situation is very hot with the Spanish fishermen.' And he said he couldn't talk any reason with them.' He described the actions of the Spanish fishermen as virtual piracy.
'They shot out all the windows of a French boat and then took it back to Spain - that's piracy. It seems to me they're going around looking for English, French and Irish boats - it's crazy out there.' Mr Hicks said the Spanish have about 300 tuna fishing boats off the Atlantic coast, the French 70, the Irish 14 and Britain 12.
'They say our nets are too long but we've got dolphin escape panels in them to keep Greenpeace happy,' he said.
Shaun Williams, skipper of the Wendy Pulfrey, told how the Spanish authorities had warned them to leave the fishing grounds. 'We were advised to get out of international waters. That's what their gunboat told us, otherwise he would not be responsible for what actions the Spanish fishermen took against us,' he told ITN's early evening news.
Spanish fishermen claim British boats have been using nets of 6km (3.8 miles) or more, a charge the British strenuously deny.
The Ministry of Agriculture said that some UK nets may legitimately exceed the limit because they had gaps to allow dolphins and other sea mammals to escape.
Richard Banks, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, denied British fishermen were fishing illegally and said the Spanish were acting from 'pure jealousy'.
'They are confused because we have incorporated devices called doors which separate the nets. By having the doors in, we allow dolphins to go through,' he said. 'Our nets are actually 2.5km, it's just that there are spaces in between them, so the lines are longer.
'We have tried to explain this to the Spanish - but basically, the problem is that they are determined to establish themselves as the main fishermen in the area and don't want anybody else taking part.'
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