LONDON — The video footage is dramatic: French and British vessels ramming into each other in the middle of the night, fishermen shouting insults, marine flares hurtling through the air.
The showdown on Tuesday marked an escalation of what have become known as the “Scallop Wars.”
The two sides are at odds over who can fish in the waters and when -- an issue they have fought over for well over a decade. In an effort to help replenish scallop stocks, France permits its fishermen to fish in the area only between Oct. 1 and May 15. But the British are not subject to the same rules.
In the latest installment of the long-running feud, French and British boats clashed in the English Channel, just off the coast of France. In the early morning hours, French vessels reportedly chased away British boats from the Bay of Seine, an area near Normandy known for its scallop-rich waters. French officials said there were about 35 French vessels and five British ones caught in the flare-up.
“At about 2 a.m. we were were surrounded. They fired rocket flares, petrol bombs. Suddenly there was smoke everywhere, and the air smelled like gunpowder and sulfur,” said Ciaran Cardell, 31, a British fisherman who ultimately fled the scene with the other British boats in the area.
“There were boats on fire; one of their boats got sunk. That’s the closest I’ve ever been to being at war. It was like a battle on the high seas. It was crazy,” he said in a Wednesday telephone interview from his boat, which was still at sea but floating closer to England than France.
British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday said that she hoped for an “amicable solution” to the dispute.
“It’s what we want and it’s what France wants, and we will be working on that," she told reporters during her visit to Nigeria.
French officials have said that they will send more boats to police the area, if necessary.
For the past several years, the two sides in the wars over the humble scallop came to an agreement: Larger British vessels — those measuring 15 meters and over — would stay out of closed French fishing waters in exchange for more fishing rights. But this year that deal broke down.
French fishermen accuse the British sailors of having an unfair advantage and plundering their stocks, while the Brits counter that they were doing nothing wrong and accuse the French of piracy.
Normandy fishing chief Dimitri Rogoff said the French vessels were indeed trying to stop the British from fishing in the waters, but just until the season got started again.
“For the Brits, it’s an open bar — they fish when they want, where they want, and as much as they want,” he told the BBC. “We don’t want to stop them from fishing, but they could at least wait until Oct. 1 so that we can share.
“Scallops are a flagship product for Normandy, a primary resource and a highly sensitive issue,” he said.
Barrie Deas, chief executive of Britain’s National Federation of Fishermen’s Organizations, said the French actions are dangerous.
“It’s alarming because of the French tactics and potential danger for the crews of the boats involved — both on our boats and the French boats,” he said. “We have disputes from time to time. The proper place to resolve them is around the table.”
Britain’s government, meanwhile, said in a statement that the British fishermen were “operating in an area they are legally entitled to fish,” adding that it was in contact with the French to “prevent further incidents from occurring.”
Sheryll Murray, a British Conservative Party lawmaker, tweeted: “This is disgraceful treatment of British vessels who were doing nothing but trying to earn a living.”
Lieutenant Ingrid Parrot, a spokeswoman for France’s regional maritime authority, said that the incident was worrisome in part because of the proximity of the boats.
“It’s dangerous why? Because you have 35 French boats and five English boats. And they’re close to each other. So on the one hand, there’s proximity. And on the other, there are the altercations between the boats. We can imagine a situation where a person falls in the water, a person injured or a person dying,” she said.
But she also acknowledged that the French fishermen were “frustrated” that the British were fishing while they cannot.
Cardell, the British fisherman, said he sympathized with his French counterparts, even if he disapproved of their actions.
“Usually the big boats aren’t allowed there until November 1st, which gives all of us small boats a chance. It usually goes like this: We get there first, we get a month on it, then the French boats come, then the big boats get to come and clean up what’s left. There was no agreement made [this year], so the big boats are there now, and by the time the French get there, there will be nothing left,” he said.
“I can understand their frustration, but not the way they’ve gone about it,” he said.
James McAuley in Paris contributed to this report.