PARIS A bumper season for the large scallops known in France as Coquilles St. Jacques has turned into a bitter dispute in the English Channel, as French fishermen angry over British expansion into their traditional waters surrounded British boats in a show of maritime force.
About 40 French boats encircled a handful of British fishing vessels about 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, while entitled to fish in the area, aren't bound by the same rules. That means that they can cross the channel and scoop up scallops in a way that is forbidden to the French.
The French were expecting a banner year for Coquilles St. Jacques. But under national regulations to prevent overfishing, the season is closed to French fishermen from May 15 to Oct. 1 and they must respect quotas. 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.
French fisherman have sacrificed for some 15 years, working under catch quotas to resupply a dwindling stock, and it has worked, said Jean-Louis Seron, who heads the Coquilles Saint Jacques commission based in Dieppe.
"Now, the British are coming, taking away our resources fully legally," Seron said by telephone. "They didn't make rules to protect (scallops) in front of their own doorstep so they come here instead."
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.
There have been other fisheries disputes between Britain and seafaring rivals: A series of confrontations between Britain and Iceland began when Iceland moved to extend its territorial waters in what was known as the Cod Wars.
Icelandic officials cut the nets of some British trawlers, while the Royal Navy deployed warships. The long-running dispute only ended after Iceland threatened to close a NATO base. The British government backed down, agreeing in 1976 that trawlers would avoid disputed fishing areas.
In the scallop spat, 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.
Vimard said that 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."