Two British naval patrol vessels have arrived off the coast of Jersey as about 80 French boats also gathered at the port in St Helier in protest over post-Brexit rules on fishing rights.
HMS Severn and HMS Tamar were deployed a mile off the coast of Jersey while observing the French flotilla amassing at about 6am south of the Channel Island’s capital before it headed into the port just before 7am.
Downing Street said the patrol vessels, which are armed, had been sent to “monitor the situation”, but some criticised the decision as a heavy-handed reaction designed to boost the Conservatives’ credentials on the day of local elections across Britain.
French authorities also sent in patrols to monitor the situation.
The 32-metre French gendarmerie maritime patrol vessel PCG Athos had been repositioned on Thursday morning and was stationed just outside Jersey waters, about 8 miles north of the island.
Maritime gendarmerie confirmed the vessel was there to “monitor the situation and guarantee the safety of people at sea”.
The standoff is expected to continue throughout the morning but hopes of a breakthrough rose after Jersey’s government said the environment minister, Gregory Guida, and external affairs minister, Ian Gorst, would talk to them.
They are expected to go out on a boat to meet protest leaders at around midday but restrictions mean talks will involve shouting from one vessel to the other.
French fishers are protesting over new licences issued on Friday that restrict for the first time the number of days they can operate in shared waters.
Up to now they have been allowed fish under the 200-year-old Bay of Granville treaty, which the Jersey Fishermen’s Association president, Don Thompson, says allowed them to authorise their own fishing licences, leading to declining fish stocks.
But there was also support among some Jersey fishers for the protest.
Chris Le Masurier, the owner of the Jersey Oyster Company, described conditions placed upon the new post-Brexit fishing licences issued to Breton and Norman fishers as “insulting and discriminatory”.
The EU also backed the claims of French fishers. In a statement issued overnight, the European Commission said the conditions set on licences for fishing in the Channel Island’s waters were in breach of the trade agreement struck on Christmas Eve.
A spokesperson said: “The commission was notified on Friday 30 April by UK authorities of the granting of 41 licences to EU vessels for fishing in Jersey’s territorial waters as of 1 May with specific conditions.
“Under the EU-UKTCA [trade agreement], any proposed management conditions have to be notified in advance to the other party, giving them sufficient time to assess and react to the proposed measures.
“Furthermore any addition of new specific conditions to these fishing authorisations that limit EU fishing activities in UK waters must comply with the objectives and principles set out in the TCA, which are based on clear scientific rationale. Any such conditions must also be non-discriminatory between UK and EU vessels.
“The commission has clearly indicated to the UK that the provisions of the EU-UKTCA have not been respected. Until the UK authorities provide further justifications on the new conditions, these new conditions should not apply.”
Stéphanie Yon-Courtin, an MEP and former vice-president of Caen la Mer, said it was a “real shock” for fishers who did not receive licences on Friday to continue fishing.
She played down reported claims by David Sellam, the head of the Normandy-Brittany sea authority, that they could “bring Jersey to its knees if necessary” to resolve the dispute.
“These are only words you know. We are not ready for war and that’s why we would like to discuss things. This situation is all the more sad because historically Jersey and and the French fishermen have always had very cordial and pretty good relations,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
But Yon-Courtin said she “fully supported” the French government, which has threatened “retaliatory measures” over the new rules including the possibility of cutting electricity supplies.
The two UK navy ships were sent overnight amid a war of words over the new regime, which intensified when a French marine minister hinted France could cut off the electricity supplies.
The French government says the licensing system for fishers that Jersey introduced on Friday is unfair and unacceptable.
Fishers were intent on ensuring the protest was peaceful, and shortly after 7am cleared the exit from the harbour to allow a freight vessel out.
The move followed talks between the prime minister and the chief minister of the British crown dependency, John Le Fondré, who had warned Downing Street of imminent movements by French fishing boats to cut off the island’s main port.
Jersey’s government had already been reeling from the French minister for maritime affairs, Annick Girardin’s comments on Tuesday, when he warned that the island’s electricity supply could be turned off in retaliation over a lack of access for the French fishing fleet to its waters.
In a statement overnight on Wednesday Le Fondré and Gorst said they were expecting a peaceful demonstration.
“We welcome the ongoing support from the prime minister and UK government to achieve a diplomatic solution to this dispute, and we are aware that the UK are sending two offshore patrol vessels as a precautionary measure to monitor the situation in Jersey waters.
“Diplomatic efforts will continue to resolve the outstanding issues relating to fishing licences and to de-escalate the situation, and we will continue to liaise closely with UK and EU officials over the coming hours and days to achieve a pragmatic solution.”
The mobilisation echoes the cod wars of the 1970s, when there were violent clashes on the high seas between British vessels and Icelandic fishers.
A Downing Street spokesperson said Johnson had “underlined his unwavering support for Jersey” in the crisis, describing any threat to blockade Jersey’s main entry point for vital supplies as “unjustified”.
“As a precautionary measure the UK will be sending two offshore patrol vessels to monitor the situation … They agreed the UK and Jersey governments would continue to work closely on this issue.”
Craig Murray, a former British ambassador, said he could “not believe how stupid, on every level, it is to send gunboats”.
Murray, the former head of the marine section at the Foreign Office, tweeted that he had personally negotiated the UK’s fisheries agreement between France and the Channel Islands in 1991. The talks were “heated”, he said.
• This article was amended on 6 May 2021. HMS Severn and Tamar are classed as patrol vessels, not gunboats as previously stated.