European Court to rule on UK fishing controls: Limit on trawlers' days at sea faces two-year delay

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The Independent Online
A LEGAL attempt by fishermen to outlaw the Government's planned restrictions on the number of days their boats can spend at sea was yesterday referred to the European Court in Luxembourg by the High Court.

Two judges said they were unable to resolve the complex issues of European Union law involved in the case.

The days-at-sea limits were due to be introduced on 1 January, but the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) told the court it would take no action pending a hearing on 11 January on whether an injunction should be granted banning the introduction of the legislation until the European Court decision.

A ruling from Luxembourg is not expected for two years.

Richard Banks, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, said he was delighted. 'There will be significant inconvenience for MAFF because of the delay, and if we get an interim injunction we will prevent the legislation from coming into force for two years while Europe decides,' he said.

Labour's fisheries spokesman, Gavin Strang, hailed the move as a 'great victory for British fishermen'. He added: 'It is a sad day when an industry has to take its government to court to get justice. It is iniquitous that British fishermen could be compulsorily tied up while French and Spanish vessels can carry on fishing.'

The federation and other representatives of the fishing fleet in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had argued in court that, far from preserving fish stocks, the restrictions would lead to stocks close to shore being 'wiped out' by foreign competitors.

Those facing the 'catastrophic' regulations would also net as many fish as possible to maximise their catch in the time allowed them.

Arguing that the restrictions were contrary to EU law, they complained that the Government was unilaterally imposing the blanket restriction, affecting 4,500 boats worked by 22,000 fishermen.

Fishermen whose days-at- sea allowance was expended would have to sit in port - or risk a pounds 50,000 fine - while French or Spanish competitors went to their fishing grounds.

MAFF drew up the plans to meet European fleet reduction targets. The fishermen agreed conservation was needed, but said days-at-sea rules were not the way to achieve it.

Lord Justice Mann said that evidence from the fishermen demonstrated they had a case for saying the new regime was unfair and not in the interests of the market or conservation.

Michael Jack, the Fisheries Minister, said the case had stopped the Government modifying its scheme in order to meet some of the fishermen's concerns. 'Sadly . . . the industry has brought upon itself up to two years of further uncertainty,' he told BBC Radio 4.

(Photograph omitted)