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U.K. sends in the Royal Navy, France threatens to cut off power to Jersey, in post-Brexit spat over shellfish

French trawler crews angry at Brexit restrictions on their access to fishing grounds protested May 6 in a flotilla on the British Channel island of Jersey. (Video: Reuters)

LONDON — Just a day after the foreign ministers of the world's richest economies met at the G-7 summit here to applaud themselves for the return of international diplomacy, France and Britain found themselves sending gunboats to sea in a spat over shellfish.

“We’re ready for war,” blared the Daily Mail tabloid in all caps. Not over bivalves, surely? But never underestimate the hot-button politics of fishing rights. It almost scuttled the Brexit trade deal between Britain and the European Union — and the aftereffects are still being sorted.

As of Thursday morning, Britain had sent not one but two Royal Navy ships — the HMS Tamar and HMS Severn — to the little island of Jersey in the English Channel. Although it’s about 14 miles off the French coast, Jersey is a British Crown dependency, and Britain provides for its defense.

France responded by deploying the Military Ops ship Athos to carry out a “patrol mission.” A second French vessel, the Themis, with the maritime service was also sent.

Images of Jersey’s harbor of Saint Helier showed dozens of French fishing trawlers and dredgers bobbing in the waters inside and just beyond the port, firing smoke and flares.

Josh Dearing, owner of the Jersey Catch fishing company, told the Press Association: “I looked from the shore this morning and it was just like a sea of red lights and flares already going off at sea. It was like an invasion.”

The French fleet is angry because Brexit overturned previous agreements about access to shared fishing waters. Jersey is now requiring that skippers who want a license to rake the seafloor deploy the most modern equipment and also prove they have fished in the island’s waters in previous years — requirements that some captains complain are expensive or hard to fulfill.

The French fisherfolk threatened to “blockade” the harbor, and they did stop cargo ships for a few hours from entering or exiting. English and Jersey fishing boats were also in the waters, creating the potential for conflict. In one scene captured on video, a French boat could be seen ramming another small vessel.

But by Thursday afternoon, the French fleet had retreated, after a meeting with Jersey fisheries authorities, and Britain and France had called back their patrol ships. The BBC said that one of the Royal Navy vessels would return home Thursday night, and the other would depart Friday morning.

In Paris, the Élysée Palace issued a statement Thursday evening saying that the “situation is currently calm and we hope it stays that way.”

French Minister for the Sea Annick Girardin had suggested Tuesday that France would consider cutting off power to Jersey if fishermen were denied access to those waters.

“Regarding Jersey, I remind you of the delivery of electricity along underwater cables,” she told lawmakers, noting that the island state gets most of its power from mainland France.

“We’ll do it if we have to,” Girardin said, without going into details.

But on Thursday night, the Élysée said such retaliation would be “a last resort.”

Unlike in Britain, the rising tensions did not dominate the news in France on Thursday, with news channels and newspapers instead debating topics such as the complicated legacy of Napoléon Bonaparte.

Speaking to Agence France-Presse, the junior minister for European affairs, Clément Beaune, vowed that France “won’t be intimidated” on fishing rights.

He said he had earlier spoken to David Frost, the British cabinet minister responsible for relations with the European Union.

“Our wish is not to have tensions but to have a quick and full application of the [Brexit] deal,” said Beaune.

This is hardly the first time that British and French fleets have tangled. In a 2018 episode dubbed the “Great Scallop War,” the antagonists purposefully slammed into each other’s boats in another skirmish over fishing rights.

But Brexit has opened new areas of conflict. And as Britain and France tussle over fishing rights, sustainability and quotas, the ministate of Jersey has been caught in the post-Brexit middle and muddle.

Don Thompson, president of Jersey Fishermen’s Association, told The Washington Post that the French were deploying “intimidating and bullying tactics.”

The threat to cut off electricity to the island, if carried out, would have huge consequences. “Hospitals would close, babies would die in hospitals. It’s not something taken lightly,” he said.

Thompson described the scene Thursday morning: He said there were about 100 French trawlers sitting in the mouth of local harbor, and two British Royal Navy ships and a French patrol ship on the scene. “So there’s a little bit of tension.”

He said the French boats were “stopping the food supply chain” as the “big ferry that sails between here and the mainland, carrying 95 percent of our food, is stuck in the port.”

Thompson said that since the start of the year, French fleets have been “fishing in our waters, taking 100 tons of scallops every week, while our boats have been banned from landing the same scallops into the E.U. because of the downgrading of our waters. . . . That’s left our fishermen here under hardship because they can’t land their catch and export it to France, but they watch as [the] French have taken 1,500 tons of those same scallops out of those waters and land them freely back into the E.U. There’s a level of discrimination that’s already come into the situation.”

Thompson said he was reluctant to see even greater access provided to French fleets.

“We’re saying to our government, if you remove conditions from their license, there’s no point in any of us having licenses — that’s what licenses are there for,” Thompson said. “We don’t always like conditions on licenses, but they are there so we have a future and fish stocks are cared for properly.”

“Access to waters is emotive,” Jersey’s external relations minister, Ian Gorst, said in an interview.

He said that Jersey officials, who were on one boat, met with French fishermen, who were on another boat to respect covid-19 restrictions, and listened to their concerns.

“It’s really important we use diplomacy to resolve these issues and not make disproportionate threats like cutting off our electricity or blockading the main harbor of Jersey, but to deal with the issue in hand, which is making sure licenses we issue are respectful of historic fishing rights,” Gorst said.

Noack reported from Paris.