Plenty more fish to catch in the sea? Not any longer

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The Independent Online
Half the cod and haddock caught in the North Sea are thrown back overboard, dead, environment and fisheries ministers from nations bordering the sea were told yesterday.

The ministers, with two very different sets of responsibilities, are meeting at international level for the first time in an attempt to change forever the politics and diplomacy of fishing. That, at least, is the stated goal of some, including the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer.

Discarding over-quota fish "isn't unfortunate or silly, but basically wrong and indefensible," he told his fellow ministers from Norway and other European Union states. The EU's common fisheries policy had failed: "We spend so much time sharing out the stocks that we haven't found a way of increasing them," he said. Some of the estimates for stocks allocated among the nations were "invented, paper fish" which did not exist in reality.

Cod is the most endangered large stock. But fisheries ministers have failed, year after year, to introduce curbs and tough quotas which lift the risk of stock collapse for many species.

Lobbying by fishermen and their MPs leads to quotas being set which are often well above the recommended safety levels. The quota system also leads to vast quantities of fish being discarded because they are below the minimum legal landing size or because boats have already caught their allowance of the species.

The ministers were told yesterday that, by weight, 22 per cent of cod and 36 per cent of haddock were discarded. But the number of fish thrown back is put at 51 and 49 per cent respectively.

Discards and the unrestricted "industrial fishing" of small fish like sand eels, an important part of the diet of the largest fish species eaten by humans, are key issues for the Bergen conference. The joint declaration which the ministers will sign today aims to put North Sea fishing on a sustainable basis, ensuring the entire marine ecosystem is taken into account - and not just the human predators. It should also begin a new process of setting maximum annual catches and minimum safe-stock levels which would impose much tougher limits on quotas.

The declaration is expected to call for safety limits, as yet undecided, to be set within two years for 11 of the most important stocks, including cod, plaice, herring, mackerel, haddock, whiting and sand eel.

The Bergen meeting, which ends today, cannot change anything directly because the North Sea conference process, of which it is part, does not make fishing law and policy. That is the domain of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, the Norwegian government, and whatever the two of them agree in their regular negotiations. But the final ministerial declaration , which was still being negotiated late into the night, ought to give a strong political direction towards reforming the policy.

For Mr Gummer, yesterday brought the chance to renew his acquaintance with Norway's plain-speaking Environment Minister, Thorbjoern Berntsen, the conference chairman. A few years ago he declared Mr Gummer "a shit- bag" when they disagreed about whaling. In Bergen yesterday Mr Gummer said they were friends.