Trawlermen all at sea over new EU quotas

Fishing rights: Minister says he limited damage for British fleets by winning catch concessions estimated at pounds 30m a year
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New curbs on catches by Britain's fishing fleet will take effect from next month after agreement in Brussels to cut quotas in an effort to protect dwindling fish stocks.

But EU fisheries ministers, who haggled for 20 hours before finally closing a deal at dawn yesterday, succeeded in extracting significant concessions for their national fleets, toning down the most savage of the proposed cuts. The European Commission had sought catch restrictions of up to 50 per cent for sensitive stocks such as mackerel, plaice, herring and hake.

In Britain's case, the difference between the commission's proposed reduction in quotas and the final outcome of the negotiations is worth over pounds 30m to the industry, the Fisheries Minister, Tony Baldry, claimed.

Emerging from the all-night talks, Mr Baldry said he had managed to trim 10 per cent off the total of proposed across-the-board cuts. "I achieved my objective of securing the best possible deal for British fishermen consistent with the conservation of stocks for the future".

Asked if he believed the deal would satisfy Euro-sceptics in the Tory party who want Britain to leave the EU fishing regime, Mr Baldry replied: "You tell me what deal would satisfy the Euro-sceptics."

Fishermen were predictably critical of the cuts, which will coincide with the bitterly contested opening up of fishing grounds west of Britain, the Irish Box, to the Spanish and Portuguese fleets, on 1 January.

They grudgingly admitted that Mr Baldry's efforts had succeeded in softening the blow but complained that new restrictions in the North Sea and western waters would hit British fleets harder than any others.

Barrie Deas, of the National Federation of Fisheries Organisations, said the cuts would force many trawlermen to choose between bankruptcy or cheating on the quotas. John Wilkinson, a Tory Euro-sceptic and one of the leaders of the recent Commons revolt against the Government's fisheries policy, said: "I shall continue to press for British sovereignty over what should be a British resource in British waters. We want a 200-mile limit and to withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy so that we can manage our own resources."

Several other Tory MPs and many fishermen want to pull Britain out of the Common Fisheries Policy. But the Government has no intention of doing so. Apart from the diplomatic damage, it would still have to negotiate intensively with the rest of Europe over fish stocks because they migrate in and out of British waters.

The EU's fisheries commissioner, Emma Bonino, accused ministers of lacking the political courage to take the drastic measures required to sustain stocks. "The longer we postpone these measures the more serious the problem of stocks becomes," she warned.

British fleets face a huge 33 per cent cut in the mackerel quota. Ministers found this part of the deal virtually impossible to unravel as it had been earlier agreed with Norway, which jointly manages migratory species in the North Sea.

British quotas for sole, plaice, hake, and herring were also cut, but UK fishermen will be able to catch more cod, haddock and whiting in 1996 than this year. Those who fish for valuable plaice and sole off eastern England were particularly hard hit.

All in all, Britain's quotas next year for the eight main commercial species are 90,000 tonnes lower than this year - a cut of about 14 per cent. The biggest cuts are, however, concentrated on the less valuable types like mackerel and herring.

During the negotiations, Mr Baldry raised the prospect of an eventual phase-out of the quota system, and its replacement by technical conservation measures such as new net designs.