Fri, Apr 17, 2009 - Page 6 News List

French fishermen suspend port blockade

AFP , CALAIS, FRANCE

French fishermen in vans slow traffic on Wednesday in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, to protest EU fishing quotas. A French court ordered protesting fishermen to lift a blockade of the ports of Boulogne and Calais or face fines. A 100-strong fleet of fishing boats had been blocking the ports of Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk since Tuesday.

PHOTO: AFP

French fishermen yesterday suspended their blockade of two English Channel ports, allowing paralyzed ferry traffic to resume with Britain, as they met to consider a government offer of aid.

Fleets cutting access to the ports of Dunkirk and Calais in a dispute over EU fishing quotas returned to shore before dawn yesterday to take part in union meetings, although a third port of Boulogne remained blocked.

“The boats have left their positions,” said Patrice Haezebrouck of the CGT union, who leads a labor coalition representing the fishermen.

British ferry operator P&O said two ships were preparing to make the crossing between Dover and Calais, one in each direction, while traffic also resumed in Dunkirk overnight, port authorities said.

“We’re hoping to have a full service running on the Dover-­Calais route as soon as possible,” said a spokeswoman for P&O, which had pursued legal action to force the protesters to lift their blockade.

Some 500 independent fishermen, who say their livelihood is under threat from EU limits on their catch, had stopped ships entering or leaving Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk since Tuesday.

A 100-strong flotilla halted all cross-channel ferry and freight traffic, causing disruption to hundreds of travelers and massive tailbacks of trucks in southern England.

Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne are separated from England by the 34km Straits of Dover, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

There were fears the blockade could spread to the Channel Tunnel after workers at French ferry company SeaFrance threatened to block the tunnel in solidarity with the fishing fleets.

Local fishermen, who voiced disappointment after talks with the French agriculture minister in Paris on Wednesday, were to meet in Dunkirk at 10am and in Calais at 1pm to decide whether to continue their movement.

After four hours of talks, Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Michel Barnier offered the local industry 4 million euros (US$5.3 million) in aid, but refused to budge on its key demand for an increase in EU fishing quotas.

Local fishermen, many of whom have already exceeded their cod and sole quota for the first six months of this year, are pushing for a review of the EU limits so they can return to sea — and insist they are not looking for handouts.

Both Paris and the EU have ruled out any renegotiation, pointing out that French cod quotas have already been boosted 30 percent since last year.

The fishing fleets on Wednesday defied a court order — obtained by P&O and LD Lines ferry companies — to lift their blockade or face heavy fines for each hour of lost business for the ports.

P&O has separately said it plans to seek compensation from the French authorities over the blockade, which it said was costing it £1 million (US$1.5 million) a day.

British motorists and truck drivers were left fuming by the blockade.

Among those stuck was Margaret Eden, 62, who with her 64-year-old husband Tony was forced to sleep in her car after arriving at Dover on Tuesday to discover the ferries had been suspended.

“It’s typical. Every time there’s a problem, the French try to blockade the ports and stop the tourists going to France, but we have no say over the issue,” the retired teacher said.

The French fishermen accuse Brussels of seeking to destroy small-scale fishing operations by setting unrealistic quotas.

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