It is a very serious battle. When once I managed to convince the Council of Ministers not to extend the Danish permission for the industrial fishing for pout, it was taken as a national reverse for Denmark and the Minister - an excellent man called Grove - lost his job. Fishermen are hunters and fisheries ministers are there to deliver the quarry.
So the idea that the Council of Fisheries Ministers in the European Union is a body devoted to conservation is manifest nonsense. Just look at their equivalent across the Atlantic in Canada. There they had the most regulated fishery in the world. The Grand Banks were known as the one of the richest fishing grounds that existed. At school, I remember learning that this was the place where the harvest of sea was at its most abundant. Sadly, despite the regulation and the control, the bureaucrats listened to the fishermen's anecdotal evidence instead of the scientific advice and disaster ensued. You don't have to ban fishing on the Grand Banks today - there are no fish to be had. Arguably the world's richest fishing ground has been fished out and the fishermen did not recognise it until too late.
It is no different elsewhere. All over the world, from the South Atlantic to the South China Seas, and from Mauretania to Macau, fishing is depleting the stocks and ministers are the last to do anything about it. It is not that they are venal, it is simply because they see their job as representing the home fishermen against the claims of the rest. Nor is the situation surprising. Radar developments mean that fishing boats can tell where the fish are. Satellite positioning can tell you where you are, so, between the two, the fish don't have a chance. The old relationship between pursuer and pursued has changed utterly. Today the fish hasn't a prayer.
So conservation is crucial and yet that too is difficult. Fish don't wear convenient national costume. They swim where they will and they don't bear a flag on their fins. That's why, inevitably, fish management needs to be an international matter. Yet there are still those who long to repatriate the Common Fisheries Policy. That makes no sense. There is no way to handle fisheries nationally because the majority of the areas in which we operate are shared - and shared on the basis of rights fixed long before the EU was born.
So, with all these vested interests in play, it is not surprising that the EU performance record is pretty poor. Time after time ministers have traded non-existent fish in order to claim the settlement a success. There is no effective conservation policy either for our own fish or for the fish caught off the coast of Africa. There the EU signs up contracts with national governments but it rarely even gives lip service to policing conservation measures. Ministers are so thrilled to get even more Spanish boats out of the North Sea, that little attention is paid to the environmental consequences of the deal that is done. Fewer Spanish means less hassle for the rest of us so let's not be too particular about the claims of sustainable development.
That means that it is a thrill to discover that at last the ministers are taking the situation seriously with the deep quota cuts that will begin to address the real problem. Sixty-nine per cent cut in cod quota in the Irish Sea, 39 per cent in the North Sea, a third off the west of Scotland. Whiting, saithe, and haddock are cut by similar proportions.
Of course it is actually not enough. The scientific evidence demands more and the EU Commission suggested cuts of nearly 90 per cent. Ministers may have drawn back from that, but at least they have proposed something that has some hope of meeting the desperate position to which the stocks have deteriorated. There was a time when boats found it difficult to leave harbours, so thick were the shoals, now it is hard to find any fish.
Yet, now that the gravity of the situation has been understood, ministers ought to review the way the CFP works. There's nothing wrong with it being a Common policy. There is no way you can organise matters except on a European basis and any other proposal is just not a practical proposition. What is wrong is the policy. Quotas, as at present constituted, don't work. It is not that they are unfair. Britain does rather well out of them. It is that they encourage the practice of discarding small fish in favour of the more saleable large specimens. Almost every fish that is thrown from the net dies.
What we need is something much more effective. There are technical changes to net mesh sizes, horsepower regulations, boat lengths and the like but, in the end, the only solution is tough quotas, satellite controlled bans on discards, and a regime that limits the number of boats that can fish, and the number of days they can go out. That sounds draconian but it would work. If we don't do something along these lines, there will be no fish for the sons of today's fishermen to catch.
If that were to happen, the Fishermen's ministers of today would have a lot of explaining to do to the next generation for whom there will be no livelihood.
The author was Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food from 1989-93Reuse content