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Tokyo tastebuds give fishermen a lifeline: Threatened cuts in EC fishing quotas have fuelled Irish anger, Alan Murdoch reports

RAIN from a midnight storm ricochets like bullets off the harbour concrete, but the stocky, bespectacled Japanese man in silver, white and grey waterproofs and a baseball cap, crouching close to the edge of the Donegal quayside, is impassive.

A few respectful steps behind, a group of Killybegs trawlermen and porters wait apprehensively for Ohi Yasuji of Tokyo Seafoods to give his verdict. Before him in a neat line are seven horse mackerel, each about 8in long, just landed from the trawler Atlantic Challenge. The value of a day's fishing that began at 6am now depends on a minute's dissection of a tiny sample of a catch of perhaps 100 tonnes.

With a series of neat cuts Mr Yasuji opens and guts each fish, conferring quietly in Japanese with two colleagues on their freshness, size, age and tenderness. Finally, to the visible relief of the locals, the man from Tokyo says 'Yes'.

This is the cue for a silvery waterfall of fish and salt water to be disgorged by a suction pump into a large wooden container on the quayside. A hatch in its side opens and the mass slops noisily into a queue of plastic tanks, moved in and out by a swarm of orange fork-lift trucks. By now the quayside is inches deep in rain and fish slime.

That anyone should be interested in eating the small bony horse mackerel bemuses locals. But its popularity with the Japanese consumer is a lifeline in an area with few other job opportunities. Without the Japanese, the catch would be destined for an unprofitable conversion into fertiliser or animal feed.

Threatened deep cuts in EC fishing quotas and in fleet tonnage have prompted alarm and anger in equal measure in Ireland, which, Irish MEP's maintain, has about 16 per cent of EC waters but takes only 3.2 per cent of the total catch. The Irish fleet this year faces a cutback from 50,000 to 43,000 tonnes, and a further 5,000-tonne cut by 1996.

With unemployment at 21.5 per cent and rising, and fisheries and fish processing this week targeted by the Irish government as a key potential source of jobs, Dublin has rejected the EC cuts. Advisers to Michael Woods, Minister for the Marine, are considering seeking a European Court injunction freezing the Brussels proposals.

The EC has argued that Ireland is having difficulties coping now only because it failed to implement earlier quota reductions.

Frank Maddock, the chairman of the Irish Fishermen's Organisation, rejects that: 'We didn't create the overfishing problem because we have only a small fleet, so we shouldn't be penalised in the same way as the big fleets. They (the EC) are trying to impose a blanket solution on a problem which is basically more to do with the North Sea.'

He said that since Ireland entered the EC in 1973, it had been hampered by a bungled assessment of its fleet's tonnage in the Common Fisheries Policy, which had left a legacy of unrealistically low quotas. The 1973 tonnage figure showed only 'about half what we had'.

Mr Maddock claims the planned cuts make a nonsense of the EC's wider regional policy. 'The French, Spanish and UK fleets have the lion's share of fishing here, but we're closer to the stocks.' He says it would make more economic sense to allow Ireland a bigger share of the white fish in its waters, cutting the share given to Spanish trawlers. This is a popular opinion, given clashes between Irish and Spanish boats in recent years.

Ireland is also hampered by its ageing fleet of white-fish boats, which, Mr Maddock says, has not been able to catch its quota for cod, whiting, plaice and monkfish since 1989. Fears of EC quota cuts now threaten trawler operators' chances of securing finance for more modern boats.

Quota inequalities are sharpest in the EC's Fisheries Area Seven, from the Irish Sea reaching round the south coast and half-way up the west coast. Here the small Belgian fleet's quota for black sole is 700 tonnes, but Ireland's is only 120 tonnes. France and Spain together have hake quotas in the EC zone of 29,000 tonnes. Ireland's is a mere 2,000 tonnes, which, by last week, had already been filled.

(Photograph omitted)