Scallop spat: UK, French fishermen in catch clash

LORI HINNANT, Associated Press

PARIS -- A bumper season for the French national dish of Coquilles St. Jacques has turned into a bitter dispute in the English Channel, as French fishermen angry over British expansion into their waters surrounded British boats in a show of maritime force.

About 40 French boats encircled a handful of British fishing vessels about 24 kilometers (10 miles) off the French coast on Monday, hurling insults and _ according to the British _ stones to protest what they saw as rampant overfishing. French fishermen say they're upset that their British counterparts aren't bound by the same rules when it comes to fishing for scallops and so can cross the channel and scoop up a catch forbidden to the French.

The French were expecting a banner year for Coquilles St. Jacques _ the large scallops that lend their name to the famous French seafood dish. But under national regulations to prevent overfishing, the season is closed to French fishermen from May 15 to Oct. 1. Those rules don't apply to the British, who are subject to more lax European Union and U.K. regulations, said Mathieu Vimard, deputy director of a French fisheries organization in Normandy.

"For British fishermen, the season is all year," he said.

In other words, by the time the French got there, the scallops were gone.

Ludovic Lebon, a local fisherman who was involved in the dispute Monday, said there was no violence and never any intention to hurt anyone.

"It was only to make ourselves heard," he said. "It annoyed the British, but we didn't do any harm."

It wasn't the first time that the difference between French and British rules caused tension, but it rarely escalated to the level of Monday's incident, said Bill Brock, chairman of Britain's South Western Fish Producers Organization.

"It's a typical reaction by the French, instead of sitting down and talking about a problem they threw rocks at us," he said.

The Royal Navy said that it has scheduled a patrol of the area jointly with French authorities to look into the situation.

No injuries were reported in Monday's confrontation, but it caught the attention of both governments.

"As soon as we were made aware of the situation we contacted the French authorities and encouraged them to intervene," officials from the British Marine Management Organization said in a statement. "We are continuing high-level negotiations with our French counterparts to seek assurances that these issues will not recur."

It hasn't been a problem before, but Vimard said this year industrial-sized fishing vessels drawn by the large catch sailed from Britain beginning in August, each one able to catch as much as 10 to 12 French boats. In previous years it was just a few, he said, now it's 20. To make matters worse, he said, the British vessels process the scallops back home, then resell them to the French market, undercutting the prices of the locals.

"Things are more and more tense," Vimard said. "The French know that the British fishermen are within their rights. But there has to be a dialogue between the governments."


Associated Press writer Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report.