Trawler fleet could be halved

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Relations between Britain and Brussels were under renewed strain last night after it emerged that the British fishing fleet will have to be halved over the next seven years if radical plans to protect Europe's dwindling fish stocks tabled by the European Commission are ratified.

Emma Bonino, the fisheries commissioner, won agreement yesterday from the 20-member executive to propose fleet cuts over six years of 30 to 40 per cent, depending on the species.

The move comes in response to the latest independent scientific findings which point to chronically depleted stocks. So alarming were their findings that the panel recommended a total shutdown of salmon fishing, officials said. Ms Bonino there could be no future for the fishing industry without them. "These capacity cuts are absolutely essential if fishermen want a future" she said.

Euro-sceptic Tory MPs were whipped into a fresh lather of indignation. John Redwood, the leading Tory Euro-sceptic, called for Britain to declare a 200-mile fishing limit, if it failed to force the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy.

The cuts in the fleet were "completely unacceptable" said David Harris, the chairman of the Conservative backbench fisheries committee.

"It is out of the question to make a reduction of that size. That really would be to condemn a large section of the fleet to oblivion," he said.

Mr Harris, the MP for St Ives in Cornwall, warned it would fuel anti- EU feeling. He said: "There has got to be a completely different approach to the Common Fisheries Policy."

Fishing leaders last night forecast disaster after learning of the EU proposals. Elizabeth Stevenson, secretary of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation, at the South West's busiest fishing port of Newlyn, said: "There is no way we could sustain a 40-per-cent cut in our fleet. It is totally ridiculous.

"The effect on employment would be disastrous. The knock on effect on the economy down here would be beyond belief."

Malcolm Cooke, chairman of Brixham Trawler Agents at Devon's main fishing port, also predicted disaster.

He said: "My first reaction is one of horror. We still have to meet the previous 15 per cent cut so this is proposing a halving of the British fleet."

For Britain, fleets operating in the North Sea, the Eastern Channel and off the West of Scotland will be hit by reductions for cod, haddock, whiting and saithe trawlers, all fixed at 40 per cent - the bulk of which must be achieved by the end of 1999 and the remainder by 2002. Cuts for herring and mackerel fleets are also 40 per cent, though they will be more evenly phased in. Off Cornwall and in parts of the Irish Sea the cuts for all, except haddock and whiting, were 40 per cent.

The plan, which must still be agreed by the fisheries ministers, requires the "decommissioning", or scrapping of trawlers, on a massive scale, combined with new curbs such as limits on the number of days fishermen can put to sea. Britain is already behind schedule in meeting existing fleet reductions.

Mrs Bonino's proposals in theory hit all states' fleets. But Spain, Portugal and Denmark, unlike Britain, have exceeded their obligations under the existing fleet-decommissioning programmes. They will be given credit, so they only face cuts of 24-30 per cent.