MADRID, Spain - Spanish and Portuguese fishermen, enduring what they call the industry's worst crisis in a century, yesterday began nationwide strikes over soaring fuel prices in the latest oil-related protests sweeping Europe.

Trawlers and larger commercial boats remained docked at ports across both countries, while about 10,000 demonstrators converged on Madrid to hand out 20 tons of fish for free in a bid to win public support.

"Cheap Fish, Expensive Diesel: No More Speculation," read one banner in Portuguese at a raucous protest outside the Agriculture Ministry in downtown Madrid. The Spanish fishermen, who blew whistles and chanted slogans criticizing the government, were joined by comrades from France and Portugal.

The strike is set to go on indefinitely. Estimates of the potential cost of the stoppage were not immediately available.

In the northwest Spanish port of Vigo, Europe's largest fishing port, the strike was taking its toll with only nine tons of fish - all from non-Spanish boats - being sold at its wholesale market, compared with 70 to 80 tons on a normal day, a port official said.

The fishing workers are demanding government action to bring down fuel prices, tax breaks and restrictions on the import of cheaper fish from Africa and Latin America.

Spanish Finance Minister Pedro Solbes said the government was looking for ways to help fishermen but does not think lowering taxes was the best way to solve the crisis.

The Spanish fishing confederation - which comprises 1,400 fishing companies employing 20,000 workers - says the crisis is the worst in a century. It estimates fuel prices have gone up 320 percent in the last five years and claims many fishermen can no longer afford to take their boats out.

In Brussels, Belgium, meanwhile, fishery sector representatives from across the continent met for strategy talks while a group of 50 Belgians protested outside European Union headquarters with flares and banners demanding the 27-nation bloc take action to alleviate the crisis.

French fishermen have been protesting for more than two weeks, at times blocking oil terminals and ports and disrupting shipping traffic through the English Channel. They demand government aid to cope with prices of diesel, which they say have doubled since November, when the state pledged an aid package.

Italy's Federcoopesca association said about 12,000 fishermen, or roughly a third of the national total, were taking part in the strike across Italy.