Deal averts closure of prawn-fishing grounds

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The Independent Online

A fishing deal for the UK today averted the closure of vital west of Scotland prawn fishing grounds, and landed increased catch quotas for North Sea cod, mackerel and plaice.

The result of negotiations in Brussels on next year's EU catch quotas was hailed by UK Fisheries Minister Huw Irranca-Davies as a balanced deal which kept the industry afloat while stepping up conservation efforts and cutting waste.

The talks began yesterday with a European Commission threat to close prawn-fishing grounds which are the lifeblood of many west of Scotland and Northern Ireland fishing communities.

The Commission said action had to be taken to give whitefish stocks a "breathing space".

The only possible alternative - switching to high-tech fishing gear which nets sustainable prawn and anglerfish while releasing other depleted species back into the sea - was reached during intense talks overnight and today.

The deal saves the west of Scotland prawn fleet, but it faces a cutback in overall permitted prawn catches in 2009.

However the reduction is less than the 15 per cent the Commission had demanded.

And, in exchange for firm pledges on improved conservation and an end where possible to the wasteful dumping of quota-busting fish back in the sea, the deal also boosts the overall UK share of main species.

In addition to a 30 per cent increase in North Sea cod quotas - secured before the talks began - the deal offers the UK fleet 32 per cent more mackerel, 13 per cent more North Sea plaice and 8 per cent more monkfish off the Scottish west coast.

Mr Irranca-Davies said: "This is a fair deal overall for the UK, balancing the needs of our fishermen to make a living with the need to protect fish stocks for the future and prevent huge amounts of what they catch having to be thrown back dead into the sea.

"Ports all over Britain will benefit, including Northern Ireland where vital prawn stocks will be safeguarded and we exercised our right to secure extra haddock and whiting for North Sea fishermen.

"I believe the measures agreed today are a significant step towards a more effective Common Fisheries Policy in future, one in which the industry and consumers can have greater confidence.

Scottish Fisheries Secretary Richard Lochhead said the safeguarding of the prawn fishery would come as a huge relief.

"The future of the west coast fishing communities dominated this week's negotiations. The bulk of the west coast fleet will now be able to make a living in 2009 although a number of fishermen face a huge challenge in delivering the agreed conservation measures and we will work hard to help them stay viable."

He added: "The deal draws to a close the annual fisheries negotiations that have resulted in a number of breakthroughs but also some new challenges.

"We refused to accept the original deal on the table and, following a Herculean effort and very tough negotiations, we overturned the Commission's original plans."

The result was a "mixed bag" but the effect was to maintain or increase catch quotas for the most crucial stocks relied upon by the Scottish fleet - in return for adapting to tougher conservation measures.

The prawn fishery stays open in return for the stepping up of measures already being applied by the fleet - the voluntary system of "real-time" closure of some fishing grounds, in which fishermen agree amongst themselves to switch fishing locations in response to evident signs that certain areas need time to recover.

More sophisticated mesh panels in fishing gear will be required, to improve the escape rate of depleted whitefish stocks accidentally caught by fishermen seeking prawn and angler catches - the most valuable part of the fishery.

Today the Scottish Fishermen's Federation admitted complying with the deal would be a "massive and difficult challenge" for the fleet.

Federation chief executive Bertie Armstrong said: "We are pleased that the Commission has accepted our alternative proposals to ensure the continuation of fishing on the west coast and the challenge now is to get these measures in operation and prove that they will work.

"It is essential that the regulations attached to this new deal are practicable for fishermen to operate."

He said the North Sea and West coast prawn quota cut of 5 per cent was a better deal than the proposed 15 per cent cut, but the industry had hoped to keep prawn quotas the same as last year.

"One important outcome from these talks has been a change in the way that fisheries are now being managed," went on Mr Armstrong.

"The Scottish industry has been at the vanguard of initiatives that ensure fishermen adopt measures to avoid catching unwanted fish in the first place, rather than the traditional control measures of tighter quotas and other restrictions, which can simply lead to discarding.

Ian Gatt, president of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation said: "The primary goal of keeping our west coast fishing grounds open has been achieved but we should also recognise that the year ahead will be one of the most challenging ever faced by Scottish fishermen, given the very tough targets in reducing fish mortality that have been agreed."

Scottish Tories welcomed the outcome.

Their fisheries spokesman John Scott said: "I am greatly relieved that the ill thought-out European proposals to effectively close down the west coast fishing grounds have been rejected.

"Continued prawn fishing, combined with strict conservation measures, is the right way forward.

"Our Scottish fishing industry is to be congratulated for leading the way and showing the rest of Europe how viable fisheries and effective conservation measures can go hand in hand."