Too many fishers on the sea

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Sharp cuts in the British fishing fleet proposed by Brussels are the product of 13 years of double-talk by British ministers, promising cuts in capacity which never materialised.

Despite the bluster of the Government yesterday, the fact is the British fishing fleet has steadily grown for most of the 13 years of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) - despite pledges of cuts and conservation made by British ministers.

The growth has little to do with foreign fishing vessels sailing under British flags - the so-called "quota-hoppers" - most of which have existed for many years. It has much to do with government policy, which has restricted British fishermen from claiming generous subsidies from Brussels for paying off old vessels.

The impression in this country is that our fishing fleet has been decimated by unfair competition from foreign vessels and by the collapse of fishing stocks. In reality, despite a decline in fish stocks, the number of British boats, and the catching power of the active British fleet, has increased since the CFP was agreed in 1983. Judged on boat numbers alone, the fleet of larger, seagoing British boats (more than 10m) has increased by a third. Smaller, inshore boats have increased by two-thirds.

Over the past nine years Britain has done less than any other country, except the Netherlands, to meet unanimously agreed European targets for reducing boat numbers. In the period 1987-91, the Government agreed to an EU-wide programme of cuts which would have reduced the capacity of the British fleet by nearly 7 per cent. In fact, according to EU figures, its tonnage and horsepower grew by 3 per cent.

The Government yesterday roundly dismissed the European Commission's call for cuts of up to 40 per cent in the British fleet over the next seven years. Tony Baldry, the fisheries minister, secured all-party support when he issued a blunt counter-demand for the outlawing of "quota-hoppers" - foreign-owned British boats taking part of the British catch. But Brussels officials said their proposal, which would reduce all EU fleets, was in line with long-agreed policy to reduce catching capacity and preserve what remains of fish stocks.

The Commission accepts "quota-hopping" is a serious problem for the Government. Brussels also acknowledges that it makes a nonsense of the principle of national fishing quotas. Foreign-owned boats, mostly Spanish and Dutch, take over 40 per cent of British quotas for hake and plaice.

Brussels sources say the Fisheries Commissioner, Emma Bonino, encouraged the Government last year to suggest a way of protecting British quotas which would not infringe European law. The Government has failed to respond formally so far.

One reason for the failure to pay off older British boats was government reluctance to participate in an EU decommissioning scheme. Seventy per cent of the cash would have come from Brussels. The Treasury opposed full- scale participation on grounds that payments to British fishermen would have reduced Britain's annual "cash rebate" from the EU and upset public- spending calculations. At the same time, some UK fishermen have been taking advantage of loose British licensing regulations to "trade up" to larger boats.

In the past five years a limited use of the EU cash has been allowed and some net reductions have been made in the British fleet but nowhere near the targets agreed. The Netherlands is an even bigger offender. By contrast, Spain, the usual fish whipping boy, has cut its fleet by 5 per cent more than the EU required. Hence the need - according to Brussels - for the British and the Dutch fleets to be reduced more sharply than others over the next six years.