The Cherbourg Dispute

The Cherbourg Dispute refers to a number of incidents between Britain and France that took place in late March and early April 1993.

Channel Islands
Location of the Channel Islands

Until 1992 the waters around the Channel Islands had been unrestricted and open to commercial fishermen from any nation. The French had an extensive crab fishery in this area, with British vessels fishing alongside them for a number of different species. However, in September of that year Britain was successful in getting the European Union to recognise restrictions around the islands, based on the fact that the Channel Islands were a British Crown Dependency. It was announced that a three mile zone from the coastline would be set up in which only Channel Islands boats could fish. A further zone between three and six miles would be restricted to only Channel Islands and British vessels. The French strongly objected to the measures, as the proximity of the Channel Islands to the French mainland meant that they would be excluded from fishing in areas that were close to their own country. However, the change in international and European law meant that Britain had every right to bring in these restrictions.

HMS Brocklesby
The 750-ton minesweeper HMS Brocklesby sparked outrage amongst French fishermen when it began enforcing Britain’s new exclusion zone around the Channel Islands.

French fishermen were furious, as they had previously been able to fish right up to the shores of the Channel Islands. The first incident took place when the HMS Orkney, a 100-ton, Island-class patrol boat challenged two French fishing boats that were setting lobster pots within the six mile limit and confiscated their catch. Several days later tensions were running high when French fishermen found out that the minesweeper HMS Brocklesby was inspecting French fishing boats in the region. The skipper of one of the French boats was so incensed that he set off for Cherbourg with three British fisheries inspectors still on board. A French port ship later returned the inspectors to the Brocklesby. At this time the French ports along the Normandy coast banned all British and Channel Island vessels from landing fish there, as they did not want to give any trade or support to the British fishing industry.

The Archer-class patrol boat HMS Blazer was then sent to the region due to the escalating conflict. Shortly after arriving it was surrounded by French trawlers protesting against British actions. After a stand-off the fishermen boarded the Royal Navy ship, forced the crew below deck and sailed the ship to Cherbourg harbour where they burned the White Ensign flag on the deck. French authorities eventually expelled the fishermen from the vessel and returned it to the Royal Navy. A group of over thirty French fishing boats then sailed to the Channel Islands to protest about the new restrictions, protected by a French Navy patrol boat.

HMS Blazer
Royal Navy patrol boat HMS Blazer was involved in the Cherbourg Incident.

Following these incidents Britain announced that the six-mile exclusion zone would be maintained by force if necessary. Embarrassed by the fisheries inspectors being effectively kidnapped and a Royal Navy vessel being overtaken by angry fishermen the British vowed to take a tougher line with the French, with David Curry MP, the British Fisheries Minister, stating “If they [the Royal Navy] are going to receive this sort of provocation, then the next time the French are going to meet with something just a little bit more severe.” It then announced that any British fisheries teams that boarded French vessels suspected of illegally fishing within the six-mile zone would be backed up by Royal Marines who would be unarmed in the first instance but weapons would be available to them if they encountered resistance from the French.

Eventually, the French realised that they had no legitimate argument against the British expansion of the restricted zones around the Channel Islands and were left with no choice other than to back down. An agreement, however, was reached that crab and lobster pots could be used by French fishermen in the Schloe Bank area, even though it was within six miles of British territory. Shortly after this French ports re-opened to British trade allowing Britain to claim victory over France in the Cherbourg Dispute.