Margins of error `whittled away'

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The Independent Online
The agreement that European Union fisheries ministers reached in the small hours of yesterday was a classic compromise which leaves fish stocks in real danger of collapse.

This is the view of scientists and nature conservationists who deplore the annual bargaining which leads to dangerously high catch quotas in the North Sea and North-east Atlantic.

Many fishermen agree that stocks are depleted but they also feel the scientists are often over-cautious or mistaken. They have no incentive to fish less; that would only harm their earnings.

John Shepherd, a former senior scientist at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, points out that if they fished less, they could probably catch more after a few years of stock recovery.

Most stocks have been hammered so hard and so long that they are depressed well below the optimum size for commercial exploitation. About 50 to 60 per cent of the total weight of fish in the main commercial species is taken by man each year. The lifespan of the cod is 10 or more years; in the North Sea almost none survives beyond 4.

Yet in Brussels the ministers agreed an increase in cod quotas. This is because scientists have recently detected a small cod baby boom, caused by natural fluctuations. These natural fluctuations can work both ways, however. A sudden fall in baby fish numbers makes the impact of chronic overfishing far worse; hence the need for caution.

It is caution and margins for error that are gradually whittled away during the Common Fisheries Policy's annual process of setting quotas for each nation. Government scientists first reach agreement on stock sizes and suggest how many fish might be taken. Next, the European Commission recommends to EU members total allowable catches (TACs) - and is tempted not to incur the wrath of governments and fishermen by sharp cuts.

The final act is for EU fisheries ministers to agree quotas. They, too, are under strong pressure from fishermen to squeeze up the quotas. EU governments have little scope for demanding a greater share of the quotas for their own fishermen. So they talk up the TACs.