Fishermen seek halt to Russian imports: Low fish prices on the quayside are causing a spiral of debt. Oliver Gillie reports

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BRITISH fishermen called yesterday for an immediate suspension of cod imports from Russia. The National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations said it will urge the European Community Council of Fisheries Ministers, which meets next week, to call a temporary halt to Russian imports so the market can stabilise.

The federation, which represents fishermen from 2,800 English and Welsh boats, is seeking an urgent meeting with fish processors to find out why prices of fish for consumers have not gone down following the collapse in quayside prices. Recent catch prices have been half what they were a year ago and some fish has been left unsold on the quayside.

Nigel Atkins, who chaired a boisterous meeting of fishermen's leaders in Grimsby, Humberside, yesterday, said: 'The federation recognises that a number of factors have contributed to the fall in prices, including the recession and large landings of small fish by our own boats. To prevent landings of these small fish we are calling for a ban on the landing of ungutted fish. Then fishermen won't bring them in - and that will help conservation of fish stocks.'

The federation is also seeking a meeting with David Curry, agriculture minister, and with fishermen's organisations in France, Denmark and other EC countries to promote their strategy. An immediate injection of government funds into a decommissioning scheme for fishing boats is necessary to reduce the size of the British fleet, the federation said. The Government has proposed a pounds 25m scheme but fishermen believe that pounds 100m is needed and point out that more than 70 per cent of that would come from EC funds.

Last night trawlermen blockaded the port of Milford Haven, in Dyfed. About 50 fishermen watched from the quayside as two trawlers blocked the harbour mouth. The operation stopped a French trawler carrying 40 tons of fish from landing its cargo.

And in Grimsby last night fishermen turned back two lorries bringing fish - which they believed came from foreign boats - into the town for processing.

However, the federation has no plan to promote such action or organise any kind of blockade of the port. They still hope that political gains will be made at next week's meeting of ministers in Brussels.

The low quayside fish prices are forcing fishermen into an impossible spiral of debt. Melvyn Potterton, 28, a crewman on the gill net fishing boat Iysha, lost pounds 400 on his last two voyages which he will have to repay from money earnt, if he is lucky, next time he goes to sea.

'If I had stayed at home I would have got pounds 450 dole money for the three weeks,' said Mr Potterton who supports a pregnant wife and two children. 'The boat only caught 40kit (10 stone or 62.5 kilos) for the two voyages. We stayed out in force 8 and 9 weather on the last voyage, but we only took 5kit.'

The 40kit was sold for about pounds 3,000 but the expenses of the voyages came to pounds 5,000 for fuel, ice, food and gear.

Fishermen are bitter, too, that the price of fish in the shops does not seem to have fallen. Jim Linstead, operations director of Tom Sleight (FS) Ltd, which runs 30 boats out of Grimsby, said: 'If prices in the shops fell we could be creating trade instead of swamping the market. As it is the ship only gets about 16p for a fillet which sells for pounds 1.75 in a fish-and- chip shop.

'We have always had imports. We can live with that . . . but the foreign boats are piling the fish in at a price under the government minimum.'

(Photograph omitted)