Two Royal Navy patrol boats were stationed off Jersey on Thursday morning as a fleet of an estimated 70 to 80 French fishing vessels stood off St Helier, reports Tim Oliver.
They were threatening to blockade the port in retaliation against new licence restrictions, and a French military vessel, Athos, was also reported to be heading to the scene.
In a continuously escalating dispute, France has threatened to cut off electricity supplies to Jersey if the row over French fishing rights in Jersey waters is not resolved.
Downing Street said that Boris Johnson had stressed the urgent need for a de-escalation of tensions, and insisted that any blockade would be completely unjustified.
A Navy spokesperson said: “HMS Severn and HMS Tamar are deploying to Jersey to conduct maritime security patrols. This is a strictly precautionary measure, and has been agreed with the Jersey government.”
The French boats, which left Granville and other Normandy ports with banners reading ‘We are angry’, were standing off St Helier and were awaiting talks with the Jersey governor.
The French fishermen claimed that the Jersey licence restrictions were never agreed, and one was reported as saying it was ‘good to know our country is on our side’ in respect of the French threat to cut off electricity to Jersey.
The new licence rules specify details such as areas where vessels can fish, particularly around Jersey, and for how many days, and what gear they can use.
Senator Ian Gorst, Jersey’s external relations minister, insisted that the licences complied with the Brexit trade deal. He said they protected both Jersey and the historic rights of the French, and that a resolution must be found through diplomacy.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We think that the threats emanating from Paris are disproportionate to the technical issues around licensing.
“The prime minister offered to send assets into Jersey waters as a precautionary measure and to oversee Jersey waters in that regard, because we take a threat to blockade our harbour very seriously as well.”
He said the dispute affects only 17 licences, and that the fishermen concerned had not provided enough data to confirm their historic fishing records in Jersey waters. When this was provided, the licences would be updated and they would be allowed access.
He said: “We absolutely respect the historic rights of French fishermen to fish in Jersey waters as they have been doing for centuries.
“It would seem disproportionate to cut off electricity for the sake of needing to provide extra details so we can refine the licences.
“The trade deal is clear that when fishermen provide the evidence, we will provide the licences.”
Mr Gorst was due to speak to both the EU and UK governments in the hope of finding a solution, and asked to be allowed to negotiate directly with fishermen in Normandy to help ease tensions.
French MEP Stephanie Yon-Courtin, a member of the EU parliament fisheries committee, told Today that France was ready to act on its threat to cut off Jersey’s electricity supply. “As a last resort, if we don’t have any other means to be understood, then we will have to do that.”