Dozens of French fishing vessels descended on Jersey in what was said to have resembled an “invasion”, before retreating after talks were held to ease tensions.
An estimated 60 boats approached the port of St Helier before dawn, with some reportedly having set out from France as early as 3am.
The people of Jersey witnessed an early-morning “sea of red lights and flares” as the demonstration by the aggrieved fishermen got under way on Thursday.
One of the island’s local fishermen Josh Dearing said French vessels had first gathered from about 4.30am outside the harbour, before moving in towards the port after 6am and retreating little over an hour later.
But the vessels remained off the coast of the island all morning, as the protest over post-Brexit fishing rights made headlines and prompted talks between island officials and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and separately Jersey Government representatives with some of the fishermen.
Mr Johnson reiterated his “unequivocal support” for Jersey during a phone call with officials of the Channel Island.
It had been announced on Wednesday night that the UK would send two Royal Navy ships to Jersey amid concerns of a blockade, and following Thursday’s call it was confirmed the vessels would remain in place as a precaution.
Meanwhile officials from the Jersey Government’s environment department, located on one boat, met with representatives of the French fishermen on another vessel, in talks later described by the island’s external relations minister Ian Gorst as “positive”.
Mr Dearing, who owns The Jersey Catch fishing company, said the scene at St Helier port as the French vessels gathered early in the morning had been “quite a sight”.
The 28-year-old told the PA news agency: “There were probably about 60 boats. There were a few hand-held flares and smoke flares going off and apparently a few maybe bangers and stuff going off from the French.”
He said the fleet was mostly made up of “big French dredgers and trawlers” of about 12 metres or more.
Mr Dearing, who is originally from Kent but has lived in Jersey for around a decade, added: “It was quite a sight. 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. It was like an invasion.”
There had been rumblings about a planned protest a few days ago, Mr Dearing said, but he added that he had not been sure if it was “serious or empty threats”.
He said: “The French being the French, they don’t mess around. They can blockade their own harbours – they wouldn’t think twice about coming and doing it to us.”
He was “absolutely” pleased to hear the news that Royal Navy vessels were being deployed to patrol the waters around the island.
He said: “We’re completely unprotected in Jersey. We’ve got nothing except for a few police officers. We don’t have a police boat, we don’t have a navy boat, we don’t have anything to protect us.
“The French can be hostile. All of our livelihoods are in that harbour and if they wanted to they could cause damage.”
Mr Dearing, who said his fishing licence costs about £40,000, said French fishermen who have not been granted a licence to fish had “thrown their toys out of the pram”.
He said: “Jersey fisheries has done nothing wrong. They’ve issued the permits to the French fisherman that were entitled to them and the ones that aren’t entitled don’t get the permits and that’s just life, that’s how it is.
“The guys that have historical rights (to fish) have been granted them, as they should’ve done, and the ones that haven’t have just thrown their toys out of the pram.”
During the demonstration, a Jersey fishing boat was reportedly rammed by a French vessel.
The BBC reported some of the French vessels were arriving back to Normandy by mid-afternoon.
Speaking generally about events across the course of Thursday morning, Dimitri Rogoff, who heads a group of Normandy fishermen, told the Associated Press news agency: “This isn’t an act of war. It’s an act of protest.”
Don Thompson, president of Jersey Fishermen’s Association, said if Government were to “capitulate to that sort of tactic” by the French vessels, local fishermen had insisted they were prepared to ditch their costly licences.
He told Good Morning Britain: “We just will not put up with those (French) boats being left to fish uncontrolled, unsustainably in our waters, whilst we’re subject to all sorts of constraints.”
He said it would be “grossly unfair and highly discriminatory on our fleet to have to fish against that huge (French) fleet out there in our waters and see those boats have no constraints whatsoever and for our boats to be subject to all sorts of conditions.”