An extraordinary skirmish over the harvesting of scallops from the normally peaceful waters of the English Channel was being seen in some quarters last night as the opening shot in a Brexit-fuelled battle with the potential to escalate into the biggest maritime dispute since the cod war of the 1970s.
The violent clash, in which rocks, smoke bombs and other projectiles were allegedly hurled by French fishermen at English and Scottish vessels, caused ripples far beyond the Normandy coast, with some in the French media framing it as a battle between the two nations.
Around a dozen British boats were targeted by the rival flotilla, said to be 40 strong, in the early hours of Tuesday in a protest over fishing rights that has been simmering for several years.
The French have accused their UK counterparts of taking more than their fair share of Normandy scallops, which their own fishermen are forbidden from harvesting except between October and May, under national rules designed to replenish stocks.
British fishermen have no such restrictions, and as of this year are not party to a gentlemen’s agreement that had been drawn up to allow both sides to operate freely.
The Government said it had contacted officials in France about the matter, adding the vessels were “legally entitled” to fish in the area.
Meanwhile, the South Western Fish Producers’ Organisation, which represents many of the boats involved and has been negotiating with French fishermen, condemned the behaviour as dangerous.
Its chief executive, Jim Portus, said: “They are endangering life at sea by being unprofessional.
“The French might look like heroes to the French coastal communities but it’s really awful to put other mariners in danger.”
One of the British ships, The Golden Promise, had a window smashed by an airborne can, while another suffered fire damage after a flare was thrown at it, Mr Portus said.
He claimed to have received a message from the chief negotiator of the French scallop industry on Wednesday morning that said: “I regret the altercations that occurred... it will not happen again.”
Maritime authorities in France also sought to soothe tensions, decrying the showdown as “very dangerous”, and expressing hope that “things will calm down”.
But in other quarters, the signs were that the scallop showdown was merely a harbinger of bigger fish to fry in the months ahead.
French fishermen are hugely dependent on stocks from British waters, which were opened up to them by the adoption of the Common Fisheries Policy in 1973, but which the UK will shortly leave.
When that happens, it will regain control of its territorial waters and be free to decide who is allowed to fish where.
The Paris daily, Le Monde, quoted Dimitri Rogoff, head of a Normandy fishermen’s association, as saying that the UK would be “considered a third country” without access to French fishing zones after Brexit.
Sheryll Murray, MP for South East Cornwall, claimed the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, had assured her that “appropriate measures” were in place to protect fishermen.
She also criticised the response of French authorities, saying there was “no evidence whatsoever” that they had taken action against the vessels.
The last time Britain became embroiled in a full-scale dispute over fishing rights was in 1972 when, in the so-called Second Cod War, Iceland extended its fishing zone to 50 nautical miles.