Furious Danes fight own fish wars

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YOU can see Sweden from the Danish town of Elsinore. From the ramparts of the fortress at Kronborg, which was the castle in Shakespeare's Hamlet, it is only a few miles away. But you couldn't get there yesterday.

Danish fishermen, enraged like their counterparts in France and Britain by falling fish prices and cheap imports, took the offensive. They blockaded the port at Elsinore, where the ferry Tycho Brahe was stuck in harbour. Twenty vessels sailed early yesterday morning from the North Zealand ports of Gilleleje and Hundested and circled in the waters just outside, rolling and pitching in the thin spring sunshine.

Police helicopters circled warily overhead, occasionally flitting at wave-top level through the vessels. But they were as powerless as the fisheries inspectors in their trucks on the harbour front. 'We can't do anything,' shrugged one. 'They're out there and we're here.'

This is the latest sign of the frustration of fishermen in Denmark's 3,000-ship fleet, the largest in the North Sea. Yesterday they blockaded several ports from the land side and at Frederickshavn they tried to mob a Norwegian truck driver who broke through a road block. As in France and Britain things are turning nasty.

In desperation the government has offered the fishermen a package of new measures, but they want bigger fishing quotas and more cash. Their blockades and a week-long strike have brought the country's fish-processing industry to its knees. Five thousand workers have been laid off and the Danish Fisheries Export Association claims to have lost nearly pounds 50m in exports. But the new Social Democrat government has refrained from taking any action against them.

Since fisheries in Europe are run from Brussels there is a danger that the protests will feed through into anti-EC sentiment. A referendum on the Maastricht Treaty is only six weeks away and support is wavering.

The Danes have a national love affair with fish, and not just the ubiquitous herring. Smart Copenhagen restaurants also offer such luxuries as cods' cheeks, a delicacy long off the menu in Britain.

But, as elsewhere in Europe, the sudden collapse in prices has exacerbated a long-term crisis. It is against their colleagues in the north in Norway, and to the east in Russia, that the Danes' anger is directed. 'We will stop them any way we can,' said one fisherman yesterday. 'Our lives depend on it.'

There is no fishing industry in Elsinore, which is a trading port. Judging by the huge amounts of alcohol on sale and the number of drunks on the street, one of the biggest industries is supplying Swedish tourists with wine and beer at cheaper prices than back home. The townspeople are more concerned with the fate of the naval dockyard, and cars sport stickers saying: 'Yes to a living port at Elsinore.' They watched the naval picket circling outside their town with barely concealed astonishment.

The town is no stranger to raiders, from the medieval pirates who were the original inspiration for the castle to Lord Nelson, who sailed through on his way to the battle of Copenhagen in 1801. But once they took a tougher line: the castle gates used to sport a gallows for hanging pirates.