MADRID, Community of Madrid (AFP) – Spanish fishing boats will be allowed to return to disputed waters off Gibraltar but a controversial concrete reef will remain, the British outpost's political chief said in an interview published Friday.
Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said he planned to allow the 59 fishing boats operating in the area from the neighbouring Spanish ports of La Linea and Algeciras to return to their traditional fishing grounds near the "Rock".
"I will propose to parliament that it introduce a reform to the legislation so that the 59 boats can return to fishing on the basis of their traditional practice," he told Spanish daily El Mundo.
Gibraltar bars fishing with nets but Spanish fishermen had been exempted under a 1999 agreement that Picardo's government scrapped early last year.
Last month, Gibraltar dropped 70 concrete blocks into the disputed waters to create an artificial reef, saying it wanted to protect marine life but igniting a furious row with Spain.
Spain demands Gibraltar remove the reef, protesting that it prevents its fishermen from operating in waters over which Madrid, too, claims sovereignty.
But the concrete blocks will remain, said the chief minister of the British-held territory, which measures just 6.8 square kilometres (2.6 square miles) and is home to about 30,000 people.
"We have determined that there is no reason to move the blocks because we are not doing anything that really affects these fishermen's ability to fish," he said.
Spanish police released a video to the media showing its divers inspecting the blocks of concrete on the seabed.
Picardo said his fishing proposal was a response to the mayor of La Linea, who had asked him for an act of good faith, and not a retreat in the face of pressure from Spain.
Since the dispute erupted, Spain has imposed strict checks at the border with Gibraltar, creating hours-long queues. Spain says it is cracking down on smuggling but Britain accuses it of retaliating over the reef.
The European Commission has said it will send observers to the border at the invitation of both Madrid and London.
The small self-governing enclave of Gibraltar, strategically placed at the mouth of the Mediterranean on Spain's southern tip, was ceded to Britain under a 1713 treaty, but Madrid has long argued that it should be returned to Spanish sovereignty.
London says it will not do so against the wishes of Gibraltarians, who are staunchly pro-British.