Catches cut by half to save herring stock

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Britain's North Sea fishermen were dealt a new blow yesterday as the Brussels Commission slashed herring catches by half in an emergency bid to stop the stock being wiped out altogether.

Without such drastic action there was a danger of no herring fishing next year, the Commission insisted. The crisis, it said, was almost as serious as the situation in 1977 when there was a complete ban on fishing in the North Sea for five years to allow the chronically depleted stocks to recover.

The scale of the problem only came to light in April when the latest independent scientific report from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) revealed that the numbers of mature herring in the North Sea were at about half the minimum level to sustain normal fishing. The ind- ustry was faced with a Hobson's Choice: either to accept the 50 per cent reduction or face total closure next year, and accepted "the lesser of the evils".

In a move which allowed Eurocrats to bypass EU governments, the Commission has reduced the total allowed catch of herring in the North Sea from 313,000 tonnes to 156,000 tonnes and, further north in Skagerrak and Kattegat, from 120,000 tonnes to 90,000 tonnes. The UK catch has been cut from 46,000 tonnes to 22,000 to 23,000 tonnes.

Fishermen are angry that they were informed of the crisis so late in the day, long after they had set their quotas for the year in January. "The timing is atrocious. It couldn't be worse," said Jim Slater, chairman of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen's Association. "We are now leading up to the peak time when the fish are at their finest quality for the whole 12-month period.

As it is, many will face "severe financial hardship" said Mr Slater. "From June to September many fishermen depend solely on herring for their income. The loss in the market value will run to several millions."

Scottish Labour MEP Ken Collins called for compensation for the fishermen. "There are ample mechanisms for compensating EU farmers in similar circumstances. They must be applied to the fishing sector," he said.

The crisis, which comes just weeks after the fishing industry was ordered to trim its fleet by 40 per cent, has been triggered by industrial fishing, principally by Denmark and Norway, which accounts for 80 per cent of juvenile stock. Robert Allan, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, complained: "The sprat fishing has not been hit hard enough."

Commission officials said the onus was now on member states to ensure the new limits are followed . There are no guarantees that a ban on herring fishing has been averted but if the rapid rebuilding quota is met for the next two years the situation will be reviewed in 1998.