LONDON (Reuters) - French fishermen hurled rocks and tried to intercept British trawlers just off the French coast this week in a dispute over lucrative and fiercely contested scallop beds.
The clash came to light on Thursday when British fishermen urged the British Navy to protect them following the incident near the French port of Le Havre.
"Something's got to be done about this," said John Hermse, chief executive of Britain's Scallop Association.
"This is extremely serious. If this incident is allowed to proliferate, people's lives would be endangered."
According to accounts from both sides, dozens of French vessels encircled five British boats on Monday in an attempt to chase them away from the area, throwing rocks and other objects and prompting a French navy patrol vessel to intervene.
French fishermen have long blamed overfishing on British trawlers in those waters but open confrontation is rare in the Channel, which contains some the European Union's most hotly contested fishing grounds.
The European Union has the third-largest fisheries sector in the world after China and Peru, with more than 80,000 EU-registered boats competing for dwindling fish stocks.
Brussels tries to manage fisheries by setting limits on how much fish member states can catch but quotas are a regular source of contention.
A spokesman for the French maritime prefecture said tensions flared when up to 40 French boats encircled British vessels and tried to chase them off.
"Fishermen can be quite hotheaded," the spokesman said, adding that French mediators had to facilitate talks between the sides to defuse the conflict.
Britain's Maritime Management Organisation (MMO), which manages the British fishing fleet, said it was the responsibility of the French authorities to ensure the safety of British vessels in their waters.
"The MMO is continuing high-level discussions with French counterparts to seek assurances that these issues will not recur," said Rod Henderson, head of coastal operations for the Marine Management Organisation.
"Had the situation occurred in UK waters, the Royal Navy would have responded."
(Reporting by Maria Golovnina and Natalie Huet; editing by Andrew Roche)