Industrial fishing draining North Sea

Move to ban suction catches and dumping of freshly caught, dead fish
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North Sea nations cracked down on industrial suction fishing yesterday and moved a step closer towards banning the dumping of huge quantities of freshly caught, dead fish back into the heavily overfished sea.

At the two-day meeting in Norway's second city, the eight nations - seven from the European Union plus Norway - called for fishing to be banned or restricted where it was doing local harm to the marine ecosystem. The move is intended to restrict industrial fishing which sucks up small fish and beam-trawlers which drag heavy chains along the sea bed.

Denmark's environment minister, Svend Auken, said that his country, the EU's biggest industrial fisher, would respect such bans. Roughly half the tonnage of fish caught in the North Sea consists of these small fish near the base of food chains, used to make oil and livestock feed. These catches are not controlled by quota but the North Sea states said they should be.

Fisheries and environment ministers countries also agreed on an urgent search for ways of minimising discards - the throwing back of netted but unwanted fish - "including the possibility of a ban".

Each year, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fish are dumped overboard from trawlers, a wasteful side-effect of the EU's fish quotas. Germany said that for each kilogram of plaice brought to shore, 15kg of other fish and marine species were thrown back dead.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, who has worked closely with environmental organisations, said that the declaration ministers had signed meant big changes in fishing.

He said: "I want my children to be able to eat North Sea cod and I want there to be enough kept in he sea for fishermen's children to be able to make a living from fishing too." "The ecological health of our seas is now the fundamental driver."

But Greenpeace, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said: "The overfishing continues and the ministerial declaration remains fundamentally flawed." Germany also said too little had been agreed.

Robert Allan, chief executive of the Scottish Fisherman's Federation, said the final declaration was a sensible, pragmatic solution. He was satisfied that it was a much weaker document than the first draft which opened the Bergen negotiations over a year ago.

But the EU's fisheries commissioner, Emma Bonino, warned: "There will be tough measures for the fishing communities and it will not be easy for their lives." The declaration said cuts in fishing fleets or other restraints on fishing beyond those agreed were necessary.

Implementing the ministerial declaration now depends entirely on the decisions of Norway and all 15 European Union member states which together rule North Sea fishing. There was much argument during the talks about how far the seven North Sea states could go in committing all 15 to action.

Mr Gummer promised that when Britain was president of the European Union in 1998 it would review how fast the Bergen declaration was being implemented. And Germany said it would do the same when it held the presidency the year after.