- NEWS SKY - MAY 6, 2021 - Sunita Patel-Carstairs and Alix Culbertson -
Contribuição Ernesto Matera -
A fleet of French fishing boats has descended on Jersey after threatening to blockade the island's main port over a post-Brexit fishing rights row.
And French authorities have confirmed to Sky News that a vessel, the Military Ops ship Athos, will be arriving "imminently" to carry out a "patrol mission" - while local reports suggest another is also en route.
The deployment, France says, is to "guarantee the safety" of people at sea and "accompany" the flotilla of around 50 French fishing vessels currently protesting off St Helier over a lack of access to waters around the Channel island.
An official from the French presidency said they were keen that the situation does not worsen.
The European Commission, meanwhile, has said it is "engaging in good faith" with the UK as to how to solve the fishing dispute.
The map below, taken from marinetraffic.com just before 7am on Thursday, showed the French boats (in orange) heading towards the harbour then later massing near Elizabeth Castle, while the UK ships (light blue) appeared to be holding back.
French fishing boats were due to enter the harbour to prevent the Commodore Clipper, carrying cargo, from docking in Jersey, according to local paper the Bailiwick Express.
French officials also said they will be closing their Channel Islands' offices and will stop importing Jersey products into France.
The Commodore Goodwill freight ship was initially "trapped" and unable to leave the harbour this morning, but was later allowed to pass, according to the Jersey Evening Post.
Although crews on the French vessels were seen setting off flares, the protest has so far remained peaceful.
However, footage showed one instance of a UK boat being rammed by a French vessel.
The Jersey Evening Post said several local residents had turned up to watch and police were at the scene.
Jersey fisherman Josh Dearing described the scene at the port of St Helier as "like an invasion".
The 28-year-old told the PA news agency: "There were probably about 60 boats. There were a few hand-held flares and smoke flares going off and apparently a few maybe bangers and stuff going off from the French."
He said the French fleet - which started gathering from around 4.30am - was mostly made up of "big French dredgers and trawlers" of about 12 metres or more.
Paris earlier threatened to cut off power to the island - which receives 95% of its electricity from France through three undersea cables - accusing Jersey of dragging its feet over issuing new licences to French boats.
French fishermen said they would blockade the main port of St Helier to prevent supplies from being delivered.
Jersey's external affairs minister, Ian Gorst, said the French had made clear their frustration over the new Brexit trade deal. He said "tensions are running high" and the "precautionary" action by the Royal Navy "has so far worked"
He told Sky News: "We have had disproportionate threats emanating from Paris and a potential blockade of our main harbour - and those threats we take seriously to protect Jersey's interests.
"We want to give French fisherman who can prove they have fished in our waters historically, the rights they had previously - but evidence has to be provided.
"Now there is a little bit of a bureaucratic process because that evidence has to go from Normandy to Paris, to the EU and London and then to Jersey, and it has become apparent since we issued the first licences on Friday that not all of that evidence has been presented, and therefore talking and helping fishermen to be able to provide that evidence means we will be able to adjust their licences, and that is the way through the problems that we are currently experiencing."
He said Jersey fishermen had "found it bureaucratic to land their fish" in French waters.
Mr Gorst added Jersey government representatives were due to meet with French fishing leaders this morning on boats alongside each other in the harbour "to resolve the current dispute and resume previous good relations".
Jimmy Hersent, of the Monaco du Nord 2, told Sky News: "We went to Jersey to tell them that we want to work as we were before.
"A boat like mine is no longer allowed to trawl and I only have the right to come for 34 days in the year.
"[If this continues], what will happen is that the amount of fishing boats in the Bay of Granville will be too large and we will be on top of each other, and the resource there will be impacted."
Downing Street confirmed Boris Johnson spoke to the chief minister of Jersey, Senator John Le Fondre, on Wednesday evening "about the prospect of a blockade of Saint Helier" - the island's main town.
"The prime minister and chief minister stressed the urgent need for a de-escalation in tensions and for dialogue between Jersey and France on fishing access," a spokesman said.
"The prime minister underlined his unwavering support for Jersey. He said that any blockade would be completely unjustified. As a precautionary measure the UK will be sending two offshore patrol vessels to monitor the situation.
"They agreed the UK and Jersey governments would continue to work closely on this issue."
In a statement, Mr Le Fondre and Mr Gorst said they expected a "peaceful demonstration by the French fishermen outside St Helier Harbour".
Speaking on Wednesday night, they said: "The responsible ministers and government officials have met this evening to ensure that the very best plans are in place to ensure Islanders' interests are properly protected at all times. We remain confident in our ability to do this.
"We welcome the ongoing support from the prime minister and UK government to achieve a diplomatic solution to this dispute, and we are aware that the UK are sending two offshore patrol vessels as a precautionary measure to monitor the situation in Jersey waters."
A Ministry of Defence spokesman confirmed HMS Severn, described as being able to mount fishing vessels for inspection, and HMS Tamar, one of the Navy's newest warships, were being deployed to Jersey "to conduct maritime security patrols".
"This is a strictly precautionary measure and has been agreed with the Jersey government," he added.
France accused the UK of using red tape to limit fishing around Jersey, in breach of the Brexit agreement made with the EU last year, and said it is "ready to use these retaliation measures".
"With regards to Jersey, I would remind you, for example, of electricity transmission by underwater cable. So, we have the means," French maritime minister Annick Girardin said.
The UK's environment and food secretary George Eustice said the row was about 17 French fishing vessels that have failed to provide the data needed for Jersey to grant them a licence to fish in its waters.
Ms Girardin said the authorisation of 41 boats to fish in Jersey waters had been accompanied by new demands "which were not arranged or discussed, and which we were not notified about".
The demands set out where ships could and could not go, how long fishermen can spend at sea, and what machinery they can use, she added.
Mr Eustice said the UK has been asking the European Commission for the data needed to complete the licence applications and will issue them "as soon as they have provided that data".
"I think the threat that was made is completely disproportionate and unacceptable," he said.
"We are working through the agreement, Jersey have already licensed over 40 vessels, they've been very pragmatic throughout this.
"They've also been clear that they'll process the remaining 17 or so as soon as they put forward the data, so I think it's unacceptable to make those sorts of comments."
Mr Eustice said "a small number" of French authorities or individual French fishermen have been "difficult to identify" and get the data from - but Jersey has issued temporary licences as vessels gather the data.