When Spain and Portugal joined the European Union in 1986 they were banned from fishing inside a box running roughly from the west coast of Scotland, down the west coast of Ireland and around Plymouth for a radius of 50 nautical miles. This agreement is due to be phased out at the end of 1995.
Michael Jack, the fisheries minister, said: 'This is a crucial issue, there can be no open access without a clear indication of what takes its place.'
The sense of alarm has been heightened by the record of the Spanish fleet. Officially there are 300 vessels registered to fish strict quotas in British and Irish waters but, according to Irish monitoring services, about 40 per cent of the registered fleet has already been prosecuted for breaking the law. 'There are instances of gross over-capacity, they are fishing way over their quotas,' an Irish spokesman said yesterday.
Spain and Portugal want to take up their rights under the Common Fisheries Policy to fish anywhere in European Union waters as of 1996; Britain and Ireland want to ensure the rules are set in advance.
The European Commission is trying to work out a compromise but said it would be a tough fight.