Scallop wars: A brief history of British and French fishermen musselling in on each other's catch

Feud over shellfish dredging long-running and ill-tempered

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 30 August 2018 18:06
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French and British fishing boats clash in scallop war skirmish

French and British trawlermen have again come to blows in the English Channel over the question of scallop fishing rights.

Rocks, smoke bombs and other projectiles were seen being thrown at English and Scottish vessels by a flotilla of rival French boats in the Bay of Seine off the coast of Normandy in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The skirmish has been branded “clear piracy” by the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, as the British were harvesting the fishing grounds entirely legally when they came under attack.

But Britain’s National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) has appealed for calm.

“We have raised the matter with the British government and asked for protection for our vessels, which are fishing legitimately,” said Barrie Deas, the NNFO’s chief executive.

“The deeper issues behind the clashes should be settled by talking around the table, not on the high seas where people could be hurt.”

While France only permits commercial scallop fishing between 1 October and 15 May to reduce the impact on its shellfish population, British fishermen are under no such restriction, which has become a source of grievance that has led to accusations of the UK “pillaging” vital supplies of what is an important regional export product.

Tensions over the issue have rumbled on for the past 15 years, with the last major blow-up taking place 15 miles off the coast of Le Harve on 10 October 2012, when 40 French boats cornered their rivals, attempting to ram them and throwing rocks and nets with a view to damaging their propellers and engines.

An English rugby shirt was even burnt as a provocation, according to Channel 4 News.

The Frenchmen justified their aggression by insisting the British had drifted 12 miles inside an exclusion zone demarcated by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, an accusation hotly refuted by the opposing side.

The French Coast Guard was criticised for failing to intervene but argued the conflict had taken place outside French territorial waters, meaning it had no jurisdiction. Both sides called on their respective navies to restore the peace.

Since that time, an uneasy truce has held after the UK agreed to keep larger boats away from French waters in exchange for additional access rights.

Commercial fishing is big business and Britain has had a number of other heated encounters with rivals over the years.

The Cherbourg Dispute of late March and early April 1993 saw the UK again exchanging angry words with its neighbour over crab fishing in the Channel Islands.

The Cod Wars - only slightly less tense than the age of mutually-assured destruction with which it coincided - saw Britain at odds with Iceland throughout the 1950s and 1970s over cod and whitefish in the North Atlantic.

The Royal Navy did deploy 37 warships to protect British interests during a period in which the Icelandic Coast Guard used net cutters to severe trawlers' hauls and rifle fire was seen, indicating just how seriously the feud was taken.

Britain almost went to war with Russia over an assault on its fisherman in 1904 as a result of the Dogger Bank Incident, when Russian warships mistook North Sea fisherman for hostile Japanese ships in thick fog and opened fire.

Britain has been in dispute with France over Channel fishing since at least the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, after which French fishermen capitalised on the peace and a lack of clear laws to dominate commercial trawling along the Kent and Sussex coasts, prompting a select committee investigation in the House of Commons in 1833.

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