Britain resists EU plan to conserve fish

Brussels is pressuring the UK to cut fish catches by almost half
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The Government faces another row over Europe if it bows to pressure from Brussels to start negotiating today on cuts of up to 50 per cent in British fish catches. British ministers have demanded the closure of a loophole in European Union law that allows the Spanish and Dutch fishing industry to exploit Britain's national fish rights - the "quota-hopping" phenomenon - before new cuts can be discussed.

Emma Bonino, the EU Fisheries Commissioner, is determined to keep to her plan, which is aimed at saving the region's dwindling fish stocks. She will tell European fisheries ministers when they gather in Luxembourg today that their fleets face "the law of the jungle" if they reject the cuts that are needed to prevent threatened species such as cod and haddock from being wiped out.

"If you don't have any fish left you won't have a fishing sector," she said. The commission's proposals are for cuts in "fish mortality" of up to 40 per cent over six years, starting in 1997.

Britain's failure to keep pace with its past obligations on reducing fleet size means it must now add a further 10 per cent backlog of capacity cuts. To further inflame British anger, Spain, viewed as the worst offender when it comes to illegal fishing, has exceeded official fleet reduction targets and so has less ground to cover, according to the commission.

Responding to the fierce anger the plan has provoked throughout Europe, Ms Bonino has stressed that cuts do not have to be achieved exclusively through fleet reduction, but that they can be met partially through curbs such as forcing fishing boats to tie up in port for a minimum number of days. However, the more emotive option of breaking up trawlers is considered by Brussels to be the most verifiable and permanent way to cut overall fishing activity.

Ms Bonino insists that Britain should take its problem with "quota hoppers" to the on-going Maastricht treaty review negotiations. But she has warned that the depletion of fish stocks is too alarming for the cuts to be delayed.

Ms Bonino's plan is based on independent scientific assessments which will be challenged by Britain today. The commission has repeatedly blamed Britain for contributing to the "quota-hopping" problem by failing, until recently, to provide the aid needed to trigger EU subsidies for those in the fishing industry wanting to lay up their vessels. In the absence of other incentives they have tended to fall for the option of selling off their licences to Spanish or Dutch boat owners.

Officials in Britain said the UK accepted there were too many boats chasing too few fish, but rejected out of hand the scale of the cuts being proposed, as well as the commission's calculations on past decommissioning targets.

Britain has also said that it would want to see limits on the number of days those in the industry can put to sea to be made an integral part of the plan.

The commission admits that the proposed cuts will lead to a number of job losses but it has promised cash aid to cushion the blow, worth pounds 1.9bn. Brussels also claims that because fishing vessels will increase their efficiency by 2 per cent a year, the real scale of the cuts will be less than 30 per cent.