- European Union - France - UK
AFP - A flotilla of French fishing boats blockaded Tuesday the Channel ports of Boulogne, Dunkirk and Calais in a protest against fishing quotas, cutting off ferry services to Britain.
An AFP correspondent saw 20 small fishing boats drawn up in the main ferry channel leading out of Calais harbour firing distress flares, while trade union leaders said 20 more boats were blocking neighbouring Boulogne and Dunkirk.
Port and transport authorities confirmed that cross-Channel ferry and freight traffic had been halted, and urged car and truck drivers to delay their voyage or to choose a different route.
Earlier, ferry operator LD Lines had confirmed it had cancelled its afternoon service to Britain from Boulogne.
"We're taking tough action, for as long as it takes, because small-scale fishing is dying while fish stocks are flourishing," said Patrick Haezebrouck of the CGT union, part of a labour coalition representing the fishermen.
In Boulogne, France's leading fishing port in terms of tonnage, CFTC union member Bruno Dachicourt estimated some 20 boats were blocking the harbour's entrance.
"Not a single boat enters or leaves," he said.
The unions are demanding that European fishing quotas be increased, notably for cod. But the French fisheries ministry says cod quotas have already been boosted by 30 percent for 2009 compared to the previous year.
Earlier, protesters had barricaded the road entrances to a Boulogne seafood processing plant with pallets to prevent trucks bringing in foreign-caught fish.
Haezebrouck said the protesters wanted to meet Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier, and accused Brussels of seeking to destroy small-scale fishing operations by setting unrealistic quotas.
He said they suspect the European Union sold them out in order to win favour with Norway, which is discussing contracts to supply gas to the bloc, and has a fish farming industry that might benefit from seeing fewer wild catches on the market.
But in Brussels, the spokeswoman for Europe's fisheries commissioner said that the debate on this year's fishing quotas was over.
"One can understand the fishermen's position, but they should have started shouting before their minister voted on quotas," said Nathalie Charbonneau.
"Each year's quota is negotiated on the basis of recommendations made by the Commission, but it's the ministers who decide."
French minister Barnier later offered to meet the fishermen's representatives in Paris on Thursday to discuss measures to ease their hardship, but ruled out revisiting the quotas.
Fishermen in the northern Pas-de-Calais region also launched protest actions last year aimed at boosting fishing quotas.
This year, cod quotas are being portioned out in quarters, with 40 percent earmarked for the first quarter, the French fisheries ministry said.
But the local fishermen have already exceeded the first quarter quotas and some for quotas ending in June, a ministry official said.
"We must impose a collective discipline they cannot establish on their own," the official said.
"If we let them keep on fishing they're going to take the share of others -- those of (regional rivals) the Normans and the Bretons."
Fishermen have also exceeded quotas for sole, fixed at 180 tonnes per 25 ships, the official added.
The problem in both cases: "they have too many boats" for the quotas, the official said.
Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne are separated from southern England by the 21-mile (34-kilometre) Straits of Dover, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Dozens of ferries and hovercraft ply the route daily.