French and UK fishermen look for truce in 'Scallops Wars'

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Dozens of French boats confronted a handful of British rivals in the waters late last month over the area's prized scallops

French fishing groups in London for talks with their British counterparts on Wednesday demanded each side "respect each other" following clashes last week over access to scallop-rich waters in the Channel.

Normandy fishing chief Dimitri Rogoff said the French contingent were looking for a peaceful resolution to the issue as he headed into the meeting hosted by British government officials.

"Today, we want peace, we want everyone to go back and work peacefully," he added.

"Then we will see next year about how our relationships will evolve. The only thing we want is everyone to be working together."

Tensions boiled over last week when five British vessels sparred with dozens of French boats in the sensitive Seine Bay, with video footage showing fishermen from both sides ramming each other.

The clashes, which occurred around 12 nautical miles from the Normandy coastline, were the most serious in years of wrangling over the area's prized scallops.

French fishermen are incensed that British boats are accessing the highly productive waters, while their own government limits them to fishing there to between October and May to allow stocks to replenish.

Deals struck previously exempted British boats less than 15 metres (50 feet) long from the restrictions, a loophole French fishermen want to see closed and which led to deadlock in reaching an agreement earlier this year.

- 'The right outcome' -

Rogoff said that agreeing new limits based on boat sizes was for another day.

"The issue is to start together, to respect each other," he added.

Ahead of Wednesday's gathering, British Fisheries Minister George Eustice said renewing the deal limiting access would be "the right outcome".

"The industry (is) coming together... to see if they can get back up an agreement similar to that which has pertained in the previous five years, which is the right outcome on this if we can get a solution along those lines," he told a parliamentary committee.

The latest skirmish in the long-running so-called "Scallops Wars" has led to France placing its navy on standby in the area, with Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert saying Tuesday it was "ready to intervene in case of clashes".

Eustice, who discussed the situation with his French counterpart last week, said the two countries were in agreement on the issue.

"We haven't had further incidents since... they also recognise that under international law those (British) boats had a right to be there," he added.

- 'Difficult to be optimistic' -

Gerard Romiti, president of France's National Committee for Marine Fisheries, said he had come to the talks to promote sustainable fishing.

"We came with our outstretched hand we should not be turned away," he added.

But Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, said Tuesday it was "really difficult to be optimistic" on reaching an agreement.

"We hope to strike a deal but that would be down to the French, because they have rejected the terms we've had in previous years," he told AFP.

Park called demands for a blanket summer ban in the Seine Bay on all boats "a separate discussion" that the French were now making "a central issue".

"If that's what they're trying to achieve, they have to come to the table with some interesting ideas for how to balance that equation," he added.

"You can't have one side giving up everything."