EU ready to ban drift-net fishing

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The Independent Online
EUROPEAN UNION governments are ready to accept a ban on "wall of death" drift-nets, blamed by environmentalists for wiping out huge numbers of dolphins, whales and other sea mammals.

Twelve of the fifteen EU fisheries ministers - enough to get the measure on to the statute books - signalled yesterday that they will vote for a ban on using drift nets to catch tuna when the proposal goes to a formal vote in June. Britain, which had until recently opposed a ban, switched sides after winning support for an exemption for salmon fishing in the North and Baltic Seas.

Chairing a meeting in Brussels yesterday, the Minister of Agriculture, Jack Cunningham, noted that a majority agreed that the problem of unwanted "by-catches" of dolphin and other fish must be quickly addressed. About 2 per cent of the world's population of striped dolphin is thought to have been killed by drift-netting.

Exactly when the ban could come into play, and the scale of compensation for fishermen hit by the decision, remain a matter for negotiation. "At this stage all that's agreed is a qualified majority in favour of banning high seas drift-nets. This is more than we expected," said Elliot Morley, the British minister for animal welfare.

He hailed the step as a breakthrough and defended the two-year phase- out time proposed by the British EU presidency.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups have been pressing for an EU ban since 1989 and want an immediate end to the practice. But Mr Morley said: "We are closing down a major fisheries sector ... you have got to be sensitive to people's livelihoods".

France and the Irish Republic, whose fleets are among the biggest users of drift nets, put up the strongest opposition to a ban even though this form of fishing has been denounced by the UN as an "abominable practice".

EU compensation would be available to help convert boats to long lines, and for tuna fishermen who want to quit.

Spain, which has the EU's biggest fishing fleet, has converted to long lines for tuna and has been pushing for other countries, particularly the French, to accept a ban. Spanish anger at the effects of French drift- nets erupted in a series of "tuna wars" in 1994 in the Bay of Biscay.