The boats were “corralled” by UK military and police vessels after protesting near the spot where Gibraltar’s government placed 70 concrete blocks in disputed waters next to the British territory.
The demonstration comes as the warship HMS Westminster is due to arrive in Gibraltar today in a visit described by the Ministry of Defence as “long-planned”. The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious docked at a naval base near the Strait of Gibraltar yesterday.
The reef is at the centre of the row, which has seen Madrid introduce additional checks at the border in protest, leaving workers and tourists facing queues of up to five hours to get through. Gibraltar claims it has created the concrete reef to protect local fish stocks from trawling, but Madrid says it restricts the right of the Spanish to fish.
Chief Inspector Castle Yates, of the Royal Gibraltar Police, said the boats met in Spanish waters yesterday and, despite efforts to stop them, crossed into Gibraltar’s waters before being “pushed” out again.
“About 38 Spanish fishing boats and seven or eight pleasure craft converged in the area of the western anchorage,” he said. “We had our own police cordon along with Royal Navy and other assets and we corralled them in the area of the South Mole.
“They tried to breach the cordon several times but they were not successful.”
He said the boats left Gibraltar’s waters at around 11am, after about two hours.
The floating protest was also met by Spanish Guardia Civil boats, which warned them not to sail too close to the British territory’s reef.
The dispute between Britain and Spain erupted when the Spaniards introduced additional checks at the border, suggesting that a €50 (£43.30) fee could be imposed on every vehicle entering or leaving Gibraltar.
On Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron raised the imposition of the extra checks with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.
In a telephone call, he underlined Britain’s belief the checks were “politically motivated and disproportionate” and therefore contrary to the EU right of free movement.
Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s chief minister, yesterday thanked the British authorities for their help. Mr Picardo, who has reportedly received death threats and been targeted by Spanish internet trolls, wrote on Twitter: “Big thank you also to Royal Navy, Gib Defence Police, HM Customs and Port Authority for their deployment too. Cool, professional and calm!”
Edward Macquisten, chief executive of the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce, claimed Spain’s actions over the border have set relations between it and the territory back 40 years.
He said it was also having an impact on Gibraltar’s high season day-trip tourist trade.
4 AUGUST: The most recent dispute between Spain and Gibraltar gathered momentum when Spain’s foreign minister said the country was considering a £43 fee on vehicles entering and leaving the territory in retaliation for a recent decision by Gibraltar to create an artificial reef.
12 AUGUST: Britain warned Spain it might take legal action to try to force Madrid to abandon tighter controls at the border in what it called an “unprecedented” step against a European ally. The warning coincided with the departure of a British warship for Gibraltar, played down by the British and Spanish governments as part of a long-planned, routine exercise, but which underscored heightened tensions over the territory.
16 AUGUST: Britain asked the EU to “urgently” send a team to Gibraltar “to gather evidence” on border checks.
18 AUGUST: Spanish fishermen sail into disputed waters to protest about the artificial reef.