Unilever spurns industrial fishing

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In a major victory for conservationists, one of the world's largest multinationals is to boycott the industrial fishing which is putting the North Sea ecosystem in jeopardy.

Unilever yesterday announced that within a year it would stop using all oils derived from industrial fishing in European waters. This fishery catches more than 1 million tonnes of small fish at the base of the food chain each year and is unregulated by the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy.

The Anglo Dutch conglomerate, which owns the Bird's Eye brand, said it now accepted this catch of sprat, whiting, pout and sandeels was unsustainable and destructive. Unilever uses 100,000 tonnes of fish oil a year, a quarter of the total made from this catch in European waters, for products as diverse as cosmetics, cakes and biscuits and hair conditioner.

These small fish are an important food source for sea birds, seals and porpoises, and also for larger fish species which are heavily preyed on by Europe's fishing fleets.

Scientists agree that cod and haddock have been overfished for years in the North Sea, and there is a risk of the stocks collapsing. Denmark, Norway and Iceland account for the great majority of industrial fishing off Europe, with Britain trailing in fourth place.

Unilever's announcement came as European Union fisheries ministers met in Brussels yesterday to discuss fish quotas.

Britain's fisheries minister, Tony Baldry, also launched a campaign to return Britain's fishing waters to the United Kingdom fleet.

He warned that the Common Fisheries Policy could regain credibility only if it clamped down on "quota-hoppers" who plunder another nation's EU fish catch allocation - with the blessing of Brussels. The move follows the Government's legal defeat at the hands of the Spanish trawler fleet. The European Court of Justice has ruled that one country cannot stop trawlers from another member state sharing its quota.

Now claims worth about pounds 30m are in the pipeline from Spanish boat owners who were excluded from UK waters after registering in British ports to qualify for British fish quotas.

Mr Baldry said that the system must change, adding: "Allocations of national quotas should be for the benefit of fishing communities in the member state concerned - not for fishermen from another country."

But he ruled out any British pull-out from the Common Fisheries Policy as demanded by some ministers and trawlermen in the wake of the courtroom defeat. "Withdrawal from the CFP is a non-starter but it is crucial that there are reforms to the way it works. Policy-makers must listen more carefully to what fishermen themselves are saying," he said.

He also unveiled plans for setting up regional committees to consider the management of EU fisheries. They would cover areas like the Baltic, North Sea and English Channel.