French fishermen gather boats in post-Brexit license protest

LONDON — French fishermen angry over loss of access to waters off their coast gathered their boats in protest Thursday off the English Channel island of Jersey, the flashpoint for the first major dispute between France and Britain over fishing rights in the wake of Brexit.

Dimitri Rogoff, who heads a grouping of Normandy fishermen, said about 50 boats from French ports along the western Normandy coast joined the protest Thursday morning, gathering their fleet off the Jersey port of St. Helier.

He said the protest over licenses for French fishermen was not an attempt to blockade the port but rather a peaceful method of voicing anger over reduced access to Jersey waters.

“This isn’t an act of war,” Rogoff said in a phone interview. “It’s an act of protest.”

Britain sent two Royal Navy vessels, HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, to patrol the waters around Jersey and “monitor the situation,” the British government said.

Opponents accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of escalating the crisis, and of using the fishing spat as an Election Day stunt. The story dominated newspaper front page on Thursday, as voters go to the polls in local and regional elections in England, Scotland and Wales.

But the move was welcomed by Jersey fishermen. Fisherman John Dearing said the scene off St. Helier on Thursday was “like an invasion.”

“It was quite a sight,” he told British news agency PA. “It was impressive, I looked from the shore this morning and it was just like a sea of red lights and flares already going off at sea.”

There have been numerous bouts of friction in the past between French and U.K. fisherman. Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands and a self-governing British Crown Dependency near the coast of northern France.

The latest dispute, the first since Britain’s departure from the European Union, came after the island implemented new requirements requiring fishermen to submit their past fishing activities in order to receive a license to continue operating in Jersey waters.

Authorities on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, have accused France of acting disproportionately after Paris threatened to cut off electricity to the island.

Jersey and the other Channel Islands are closer to France than to Britain. Jersey receives most of its electricity from France, supplied through undersea cables.

French maritime minister Annick Girardin warned Tuesday that France was ready to take “retaliatory measures,” accusing Jersey of stalling in issuing licenses to French boats under the terms of the U.K.’s post-Brexit trade deal with the EU.

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