Call for drastic cut in UK fishing areas

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The Independent Online

Proposals to ban fishing in almost a third of UK waters to protect threatened species provoked an angry response from industry leaders today.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution made the recommendation in a report which warns that existing policies to stop over-fishing have failed.

Commission chairman Sir Tom Blundell said the sea should be treated in the same way as endangered areas on land.

He said: "We need to take positive steps to allow the environment to recover. Marine reserves should be created to protect 30% of the UK's seas from fishing."

But industry leaders accused the Commission of having "tunnel vision" and talking "codswallop".

George MacRae, secretary of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, said: "There are 20,000km of oil pipelines in the North Sea and on top of that there are oil platforms and rigs and all sorts of legitimate industrial activity, which have had a huge impact on the environment.

"I haven't heard any suggestion that any of these huge activities should be curtailed in any way."

Carol MacDonald, of the Cod Crusaders, a Fraserburgh-based group fighting to save the Scottish fishing industry from cod catch bans, branded the report "codswallop".

"We've seen an increase in haddock and an increase in cod, believe it or not, this year and monkfish are thriving.

"These environmentalists should go out with our fishermen to see first-hand there are stocks there to be caught," she said.

The chief executive of the South West Fish Producers Organisation, Jim Portus, said the Commission was suggesting closed areas "for the sake of it".

He said: "The fishing industry has a relatively minor impact on the environment.

"It is believed pollutants are responsible for many of the ills of the marine resource."

He said the benefits and problems in terms of social and economic consequences should be considered before closed areas are introduced.

The Commission's report - Turning The Tide: Addressing The Impact Of Fisheries On The Marine Environment - warns that over 40% of commercial fish species in the north east Atlantic and neighbouring seas are outside sustainable limits.

The Commission says large quantities of unmarketable fish are discarded at sea while birds and mammals get tangled up in nets and drown and heavy fishing gear damages the seabed, destroying habitats that may take years to recover.

Sir Tom said: "It is hard to imagine that we would tolerate a similar scale of destruction on land but, because it happens at sea, the damage is largely hidden.

"Around the world, there's evidence that creating marine reserves, areas where fishing is not allowed, leads to a several-fold increase in the size and number of fish, shellfish and other animals."

A third of the Great Barrier Reef is closed to fishing and New Zealand and South Africa have plans to make between 10 and 20% of their marine environment into reserves. Closing off an area near Lundy Island, Devon, produced a three-fold increase in lobster numbers.

The International Council for the Exploitation of the Sea has recommended that no cod should be caught in the North Sea next year to try to boost stocks.

But the European Commission is expected to approve a set of proposals for reform of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy tomorrow which will stop short of this.

EU director for fisheries conservation policy John Farnell indicated that it would involve the closure of the best 40% of cod-fishing areas in the North Sea.

He described today's call for the closure of 30% of all UK waters as "a very blunt instrument".

Fisheries minister Ben Bradshaw said that current UK and EU measures to restore stocks of cod should be given time to have an impact before the more radical policies in today's report are adopted.

Asked if Sir Tom was wrong to call for the immediate closure of 30% of British coastal waters to fishing, Mr Bradshaw told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think he is now, yes.

"I think we need to give time for the radical measures we have already taken to have an impact before moving to possibly more radical measures later.

"If we did what he is suggesting now, we would put the whole of the Scottish white fishing industry out of business.

"I think for the time being we should wait and see whether the measures we have already taken on cod recovery in the North Sea work.

"There are signs that cod has stopped declining and other stocks like haddock are at record highs.

"It doesn't seem reasonable to take action that puts fishermen and fishing communities out of business and then the stocks recover and you have no fishing industry left to take advantage of that.

"I don't think we would want to put our fishermen out of business when, for example, haddock stocks are at a 30-year high and shellfish and herring are doing very well.

"As long as we can get our catch levels at sustainable levels, there is no reason why fishermen shouldn't carry on."

Mr Bradshaw said the Commission's findings were applicable on an international level, but not in relation to Britain's waters.

"I think this is an extremely important document," he said. "It's very timely, not least because in my view it highlights what is probably the second biggest international challenge the world faces, after global warming."

Celebrity chef Rick Stein urged people to buy fish species which are not under threat.

Mr Stein told BBC Breakfast: "At the moment there are a lot of species that are not used.

"Even the humble herring is not used.

"Herring is the best source of polyunsaturated fatty acids going, and no one eats herring."

Yesterday the Prince of Wales called for urgent action to halt the damaging impact of over-fishing.

Commenting in a newspaper article, he argued that the problem will be a "major global catastrophe for the world's growing population" if it is not tackled in time.