Madrid pleads with fishermen to end blockade

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The Independent Online
THE Spanish government last night sought to persuade fishermen to lift their blockade of northern ports as tempers frayed on the third day of the dispute. Spanish fishermen warned that the situation could 'turn into a real war' after a French vessel broke through the blockade.

The mounting anger of Spanish fishermen has put enormous pressure on the Madrid government and threatens to damage relations between France and Spain.

After a three-and-a-half-hour meeting in Madrid with fishermen's representatives, the Agriculture and Fisheries Minister, Luis Atienza, promised to take their grievances to European Union authorities in Brussels.

The fishermen appeared split on whether they considered this enough. Those from Galicia and Asturias favoured lifting their blockade, while their Basque counterparts said they would wait until today before deciding. The fishermen were likely to make a decision only by unanimous vote.

A French trawler, the Sandrine- Corine, managed to break through a gap in the blockading Spanish vessels yesterday, outside the French border port of Hendaye, with the help of two French police launches. All three French vessels and particularly the trawler, were showered with stones and metal bolts and other projectiles, which broke windows on their superstructures.

The Spanish fishermen have included Hendaye in their blockade of northern Spanish ports, including the big car-ferry terminals at Santander and Bilbao.

Spain and France have agreed on inspection procedures to prevent trawlers from using drift nets up to twice as long as the 2.5km permitted under EU regulations. But the Spanish fishermen say they do not trust their French counterparts to stick to the rules.

The real issue is increasing anger among the Spanish fishermen because the French, with far fewer boats, can haul in three times as much tuna as the entire Spanish fleet. Since the late 1980s, the French have been using long drift nets to catch fish, upsetting environmental groups because they also take other species. The Spanish still use cane fishing rods with lines and live bait; each boat employs up to a dozen fishermen.

The Spaniards' involvement in the blockade is showing: fishmongers are running out of fresh tuna. French tuna, though not as fresh, since the tuna die while trapped in the nets, is arriving in Spain by the truckload.

Hundreds of British tourists who arrived at Bilbao yesterday expecting to take the P&O car ferry Pride of Bilbao to Portsmouth were shocked to learn they would have to pick it up in the northern French port of Cherbourg. Those with vehicles were given part of their ticket money back as well as compensation for petrol for the drive. Those on foot boarded buses for the long trip through France.

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