EU fishing deal is 'a gamble on North Sea's future'

Posted: 20 December 2007

The deal on fish quotas for 2008 reached by European Union ministers has has been criticised by environmental groups which claim that the clear scientific advice on cod stocks, in particular, has been ignored.

The deal, aimed at helping depleted stocks recover, includes an 11 per cent increase in the cod quota in the North Sea and measures to tackle the problem of crews being forced to dump dead fish at sea.

Under the terms of the agreement the increase in North Sea cod catches will be allowed following a recovery in the stocks. The deal also offers a 50 per cent inrease in Rockall haddock catches, and small increases in the Irish Sea haddock quota and North Sea megrom flat fish.

Futher quota reductions of up to 25 per cent have been imposed off Western Scotland and in the Irish Sea. Crews will also have to reduce the number of days at sea, although those taking take part in a new monitoring scheme in recovering fishing areas, will be able to spend more time at sea.

Waters where fishermen report a preponderance of young cod fish will be marked off limits as part of long-term recovery plans. And crews will be redirected to more lucrative areas.

A joint UK-Ireland initiative in the Irish Sea to avoid the dumping of unwanted fish will also allow participating boats to earn extra days at sea.

Warnings ignored

While both the British and Irish governments have welcomed teh deal, environmental groups criticised the EU for ignoring warnings by scientists that the small recovery in fish stocks does not mean that quotas should bd eased.

WWF said that EU Fisheries Ministers have gambled on the future of North Sea cod stocks, by deciding to increase fishing quotas by 11 per cent in 2008 and giving the green light to voluntary measures by fishermen to address the wasteful situation of discards.

"The quota increase of around 22,000 tonnes proposed by the EU Fisheries Council in Brussels is based on early signs of stockrecovery. But Ministers have failed to put in place compulsory measures that will enable young fish to remain in the sea and reproduce, WWF said.

It warns that cod stocks are not out of trouble yet and the next 12 months will be crucial for determining the fate of this fragile, over-exploited species.

Senior Marine Policy Officer, Helen McLachlan, said: "This is the fishing industry's big chance to show they can deliver on their claims of being able to fish more selectively and sustainably. If successful the 2008 measures will give the much needed break that cod needs and help the stock replenish. However if the fishermen fail to implement cod avoidance plans, we will have wasted the only chance at recovery since 1997. The stakes are high - let's hope they can deliver."

The Council approved the concept of allowing fishermen to propose "tailor-made measures" that would best suit them. These voluntary measures include the temporary closure of areas where cod are abundant or spawning, and the use of more selective fishing gear. This is the first time such a conservation credit-scheme has been approved by the Commission and aims to prevent the wasteful practice of discarding whereby huge quantities of fish caught over the quota limit are thrown overboard.

Glimmer of hope Recent EU figures show that fishermen are throwing between 40 and 60 per cent of their catch overboard, an action described as "immoral" by the UK Fisheries Minister Jonathan Shaw.

"Whether this will actually lead to fishermen 'avoiding' cod at sea remainsto be seen" said McLachlan. "As the scheme is voluntary, it will only prove to be effective if enough boats adopt the plans. This year we saw the first glimmer of hope for North Sea cod in many years. 2008 will be a major challenge to both government's and fishermen to prove they are able to help recover this stock."

WWF also criticises the minimal reduction of quotas, ranging from 8 to 18 per cent, agreed for other cod populations, such as the Kattegat,Irish Sea, and West Scotland for which scientists had advised not to fish at all. The real failure, the conservation agency said, was not to accompany any cuts with agreed measures to improve selectivity and avoid catching unwanted cod in the first place.

Elsewhere the ban on destructive fishing practices, including bottom trawling in waters west of Ireland is a welcome step for the protection of fragile cold water coral reefs, wwf said. However the agreement was weaker than the original proposed by the Irish government to close the area to all fishing.