Fish quota deal to cut deep into sole catch

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Britain's trawler fleets face a small overall cut in fishing quotas after all-night negotiations between fisheries ministers ended in Brussels early yesterday.

The compromise, struck at dawn after 16 hours of talks, was hailed as ``the best deal possible'' by Britain's fisheries minister, Tony Baldry. The European Union's fisheries commissioner, Emma Bonino, was so exhausted she fainted in the final moments of the annual carve-up of quotas for the over-fished North Sea, English Channel and western Atlantic.

The deal is a compromise between the commission, which demanded cuts to protect stocks, and ministers, all of whom won concessions for their fishermen against the advice of scientists worried about stocks.

In several cases, where the commission wanted a small rise in quota, the ministers agreed on a much larger one. When the commission argued for a big cut, a considerably smaller one was accepted. Fishermen welcomed this, but environmental bodies said governments were running an ever greater risk of total collapse in some of the most commercially important stocks.

The biggest cuts for Britain fall on some key species such as North Sea sole, down 22 per cent, though the Commission sought a 50-per-cent cut. North Sea plaice is down 7 per cent and west of Scotland haddock catches down 13 per cent.

On balance, Britain's quotas for 1997 amount to a freeze on last year's cuts, although fleets will be allowed to catch more cod in the west of Scotland, and more herring in the North Sea, while the quota for sole in the English Channel will rise by 11 per cent and the haddock catch there will be doubled.

The worst of the cutbacks is to come. Ministers failed to agree plans for long-term scaling back of fleets and capacity, which Ms Bonino wants cut by 40 per cent in response to warnings about depleted stocks.

An April deadline for talks on her five-year plan has been set, although Britain still refuses to contemplate any more downsizing of the fleet until the EU constitutional loophole which allows Spanish and Dutch ``quota- hoppers'' is closed.

Euan Dunn, marine policy officer of the Royal Society for Birds, said: ``Governments need to grasp the nettle - drastic cuts in quotas, major decommissioning of fishing boats and compensation for fishermen -to help them over the hump while the stocks recover. But they are indulging in brinkmanship.''

The quota deal upset Northern Ireland fishermen, whose MPs were offered special assurances before abstaining in Monday's Commons fishing vote, and exposed strains in Anglo-Irish relations. There were heated exchanges between rival UK and Irish fishing leaders outside the meeting.

Mr Baldry criticised Dublin after it invoked an entitlement called the Hague preference to secure additional fishing rights in the Irish Sea, knocking tonnages off the anticipated UK quota for Irish Sea plaice and whiting. But he insisted after the meeting that he had mitigated the disadvantages for Northern Ireland arising from Dublin's decision by entering into a "quota swap" with the Republic.

Dick James, of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation, said the Government would in effect have to "buy back" the British quota from Ireland to satisfy the demands of Ulster fleets. "To me it rankles, because basically we're buying our own fish back and the fish we are using to buy it back will be sorely missed."

Britain's fishy role, page 14