EC may be forced to limit fish imports

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The Independent Online
BRUSSELS - The European Community may limit imports if a new system of minimum prices does not ease the crisis in the fishing industry, EC officials said yesterday. But the food industry fears this could hit consumers hard, writes Andrew Marshall.

As hundreds of fishermen gathered in Brussels, the EC decided to impose minimum prices for six types of fish. This is in response to a massive fall in prices of nearly 30 per cent in a few weeks. The new scheme is basically a tighter version of the system of reference prices which already exists, and applies only to imports into the EC. It is likely to add a few pence to the price of fish, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said yesterday, but the price system will only remain in place until 30 June.

However, if the crisis in the industry is not over by then, there will be strong pressure to impose limits on fish imports from outside the EC. This could have a much longer term impact on prices.

The present crisis in the fishing industry has two main causes, say industry experts. First, British catches surged in February, partly because British haddock quotas increased, partly because fishermen had been cooped up in port most of the winter after 1992 quotas expired. British-caught fish are highly competitive after last year's devaluation of the pound.

The second aspect of the crisis is a surge in supply from the former Soviet Union, where controls on fishing have broken down. British fishermen from Cornwall to North-east Scotland have complained about the impact of large amounts of Russian fish suddenly appearing on the market.