Hopes rise over fishing shutdown threat

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Hopes of avoiding the total shutdown of key fishing grounds along the west coast of Scotland rose today as talks on next year's catch quotas went on in Brussels.

The threat of closure came in European Commission proposals warning that dangerously-depleted whitefish stocks need a "breathing space" to re-build.

The Commission called for an end to "targeted" fishing for cod, haddock and whiting and the introduction of new fishing gear "that lets these fish escape while enabling fishermen to continue catching the prawns and anglerfish that are the most valuable parts of the fishery".

As the annual haggling over EU catches began last night, discussions on the fishing gear had still not produced a deal, with ministers warning that the alternative - shutting down vital prawn fishing grounds entirely - was a real possibility.

Scottish Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead said: "The closure of west coast fishing grounds proposed by the Commission would devastate communities from Campbeltown to Stornoway.

"At any time these proposals would be difficult to accept, but in the current climate they would be an economic and social bombshell.

"West coast fish stocks are worth around £85 million to the Scottish economy and they also support many other businesses."

This morning ministers were awaiting revised proposals, with one UK spokesman saying there was "a chink of light" in the talks on keeping the prawn fishery open.

He said: "The scientific evidence has clearly shown that the prawn fishery is fully sustainable."

Meanwhile UK Fisheries Minister Huw Irranca-Davies was already assured that any final deal would include a 30 per cent increase in cod catches for the fleet in the North Sea.

This is already secure thanks to what the Commission called an "abundance" of North Sea cod in the area, which meant a firm agreement was secured at separate EU-Norway fishing talks last week.

That deal has also delivered increased catch allowances for plaice, along with some other whitefish reductions and an agreement on tighter conservation measures to cut the amount of dead fish dumped overboard.

The upturn on North Sea cod stocks is due to a bumper year in 2005 for young fish, but scientists are already warning the blip does not signal an end to carefully-managed conservation measures to ensure long-term recovery.

Ministers agree it has improved levels of trust between the scientific experts and the fishermen, who have become wary of constant cutbacks affecting their livelihoods with little sign of the long-promised revival of key stocks.

Off the west of Scotland, fishermen are already operating a voluntary system of fishing ground closures, under which they agree to switch fishing locations.

But the Commission is demanding something more formal to save whitefish stocks in the prawn-fishing grounds, with the fleet fearing the loss of a prawn fishery worth £45 million on the west coast and £100m across Scotland as a whole.

Mr Irranca-Davies was working with Mr Lochhead at the talks to avoid what he called a "potentially catastrophic" closure of prawn grounds.

He said: "We are working flat-out with the Commission on alternative proposals which would meet concerns about conserving whitefish stocks without shutting down the prawn fishery."