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Fishermen braced for quota cuts

THE GOVERNMENT will today agree to massive cuts in British fishing quotas proposed by Brussels under Europe-wide plans designed to conserve rapidly-dwindling stocks.

The move, likely to provoke consternation among British fishermen, will come at a crunch meeting of European fisheries ministers called to set total annual catches.

Britain will call for changes to just five of the 50 categories which affect the UK, dashing the hopes of most of the country's 10,000 fishermen who argue that their livelihoods are at stake.

A British official argued: "We are taking a cautious approach based on scientific advice. We need to conserve stocks today otherwise we run the risk of there being no fish stocks in the future."

At today's meeting, Eliot Morley, the Fisheries Minister, will agree to a 23 per cent reduction in the 80,370 tonnes of herring fished this year off the west coast of Scotland, to 62,000 tonnes in 1999. British fishermen are entitled to 60 per cent of that catch.

Other traditional British fishing waters which will be hit include haddock catches in the North Sea, where the UK agrees with a cut to the total catch from 115,000 tonnes in 1998 to 88,500 next year - a cut of nearly a quarter. The UK's quota is 78 per cent of this figure. The whiting catch will also be slashed from 60,000 tonnes to 44,000 tonnes next year, a drop of 27 per cent. British fishermen are entitled to just over half.

And cod fishermen in the Irish Sea will also be hit. British fishermen are allowed to land 43 per cent of the total permitted catch which was 7,100 tonnes this year. In 1999, the figure is set to be reduced to 5,500 tonnes, a cut of 23 per cent.

Of the five areas where Britain is seeking an increase, the biggest is haddock fishing off the west coast of Scotland, where a reduction from 25,700 to 18,100 is planned. The UK, which is entitled to 81 per cent of that catch, believes that the scientific evidence does not fully support the cut.

The other catches where Mr Morley will be arguing for a increases are: cod and haddock off the west coast of scotland; herring in the Irish Sea; plaice in the English Channel; and sole in the Bristol Channel and Celtic Sea.

In one area the UK will argue for a lower total catch than Brussels proposes. For sprat in the North Sea the European Commission wants to see increases from 150,000 this year to 175,000 next. Mr Morley wants to stick at this year's figure.

The figures for total allowable catches are drawn up on the basis of data from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. The commission says that "concern remains for a number of stocks" although in a few exceptions, such as plaice and sole in the North Sea, the permitted catches will increase.

Detailed negotiations are likely to go into the early hours of tomorrow as ministers have to agree the whole package.

Discussions have been complicated by a dispute among Mediterranean countries over bluefin tuna stocks. France and Spain are holding out against moves to redistribute some of their quota to Italy and Greece, both of which have sufferedpenalties for over-fishing. Although the size of the total catch is small, the fish is one of the most valuable in the world due to its popularity in Japan.