Government holds out for fishing quotas deal

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THE GOVERNMENT was last night holding out for key concessions for Britain in the battle over European fishing quotas, despite accepting that huge cuts in catches are required to conserve dwindling stocks for the future.

Facing the most far-reaching series of cuts in recent memory, fisheries ministers from around the EU met yesterday for a tense series of talks which were expected to last into the early morning. Britain planned to fight hard over North Sea haddock, considering even invoking a mechanism known as the "Hague Preference", under which it can demand a share of other member states' catch allocation with no trade-off.

Elliot Morley, the fisheries minister, was also trying to boost by 10 per cent the planned allocation of sole caught in the English Channel, pushing for a smaller rise for Channel plaice and disputing the advice to cut monkfish catches from 8,600 tonnes a year to 5,160 tonnes. To help offset swingeing reductions, particularly in white fish allocations including Irish Sea cod, the Government is also trying to keep its present prawn quotas for the waters off Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless, ministers accept that the reductions of up to 70 per cent, described by fishermen's organisations as "unprecedented", reflect advice from independent scientists. Critics say the proposals would cost pounds 90m and devastate the national fleet. Mr Morley argued: "This year a lot of stocks are in bad shape and some stocks are in desperate state. Irish Sea cod is almost on the verge of collapse. It is not just an issue of trying to decide a quota - we are going to have to put in place a recovery plan.

"It is a difficult balance to make. To be absolutely honest, too many decisions have been made at this council in the past on the basis of expediency and not conservation. We are paying the price for that now. Some of the stock is so poor that, theoretically, you could get an increase in the quota but that would not help the fishermen because the fish are not there.

"However, I cannot ignore the impact on fishing communities. In some cases we will be looking for a mitigation of the level of cuts, in others for phasing of the cuts." Britain plans to accept big cuts in Irish Sea cod catches but wants to resist the drastic nature of the proposed reduction which would eliminate almost all intentional fishing for cod there. Big cuts in whiting allocations will also be accepted on the basis of the scientific advice. But there will be a battle over North Sea haddock and, if Britain succeeds in its plan, Denmark, Germany, France and Holland will all have to surrender part of their quota to the UK.

Talks are expected to go through the night at the meeting of fisheries ministers in Brussels which will set the Total Allowable Catches for a range of species in different waters.

TACs are determined after taking independent scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, based in Copenhagen. These will then be divided up into national quotas on a percentage bases agreed in 1983. Because of the socio-economic effects Brussels has sought to limit reduction of TACs to 40 per cent where possible.