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France sends patrol boats as tensions flare with UK on fish

French fishing vessels block the port of St Helier in Jersey, Thursday, May 6, 2021. French fishermen angry over loss of access to waters off their coast have gathered their boats in protest off the English Channel island of Jersey. The head of a grouping of Normandy fishermen said about 50 boats from French ports joined the protest Thursday morning and gathered their fleet off the Jersey port of St. Helier. (Gary Grimshaw/Balliwick Express via AP)

LONDON (AP) — France dispatched two patrol boats Thursday as French fishermen angry over loss of access to waters off their coast gathered for a maritime protest 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.

The naval policing boats Athos and Themis were sent to keep watch on waters between France and Jersey, French maritime authorities for the English Channel and North Sea said. The deployment came after Britain on Wednesday directed two Royal Navy vessels, HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, to also patrol the waters around the island, a self-governing British Crown Dependency near the coast of northern France.

French fishermen have steamed into Jersey waters to demonstrate against new rules requiring them to submit their past fishing activities in order to receive a license to continue operating in the island’s waters. Dimitri Rogoff, who heads a grouping of 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.”

French authorities said their vessels were there to assist in any maritime emergencies.

“We would thus be capable of intervening rapidly should the situation worsen, which is not the case at the moment,” they said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press.

The British government said its Royal Navy vessels were there to “monitor the situation.” 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. The latest dispute, the first since Britain’s departure from the European Union, came after the island implemented new requirements that make fishermen account for their past work in Jersey waters to be eligible for a license to continue operating there.

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.

Economically insignificant but culturally important, fishing was the thorniest issue in U.K.-EU divorce talks, and the last to be settled.

Under post-Brexit rules that took effect May 1, French boats need permits from the Jersey government to fish in the island’s waters. The French say there have been holdups in issuing some of the licenses, and the permits come with unexpected restrictions that could drive many out of business.