Environmentalists attack deal on fishing quotas

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Campaigners have condemned a deal over fishing quotas for next year as "irresponsible", saying they threaten to drive cod to extinction in the North Sea.

After negotiating into the early hours yesterday, European fisheries ministers agreed cuts of up to 20 per cent in catches from endangered cod stocks. But they rejected a recommendation from the European fisheries commissioner, Joe Borg, that catches be cut by a quarter and swept aside scientific advice for a complete ban on fishing.

Once a staple food, cod is now in danger of disappearing from the northern European diet. Despite mounting evidence of a crisis in fish stocks in recent years, officials have been unable to stave off the decline of the species. Though environmentalists argue that a reduction in catches will give cod time to recover, politicians face acute pressure from hard-hit fishing communities.

Cod catches will be reduced by between 14 and 20 per cent in 2007. Cod fishermen were also ordered to cut the number of days spent at sea by between 7 and 10 per cent.

The 20 hours of talks that culminated in the agreement were part of an annual session of haggling which environmental groups say has failed to stave off the collapse of stocks.

The WWF campaign group dismissed the deal as "irresponsible", arguing that, for the past 15 years, political pressure has meant cod quotas being set at an average 30 per cent above scientific recommendations.

While experts at the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas again called for zero catch this year, 19,957 tons have been agreed for 2007 cod catches. Britain says it has worked harder than its European partners to conserve stocks, particularly by de-commissioning boats. But, around the world, fish stocks have been depleted by the improved efficiency of mechanised fishing fleets.

Carol Phua, fisheries policy officer at the WWF campaign group, said that "political horse-trading on quotas continues, while our oceans are facing a crisis". The Greenpeace oceans campaigner Willie Mackenzie said: " This is a disgrace. Cod in the North Sea will be wiped out if fishing is allowed to continue." He claimed that the decision "isn't just bad news for the ecology of the oceans, it'll be devastating for the fishing industry".

Britain's Fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw, accepted that steeper reductions might have been justified. He said: "The UK was prepared to go further to protect cod and nobody is more committed to helping its recovery than we are, but in the face of opposition from other countries we accepted a more modest reduction.

The impact on our fishing fleet will be more than compensated for by big increases in catches allowed for prawns, haddock, mackerel and monkfish ­ each of which is already more valuable than cod to our fishermen."

Mr Borg said that the only encouraging news for the industry was the relative health of stocks of whiting, monkfish and mackerel, with some increased quotas for British fleets.

However, France and Spain won the right to start "experimental" fishing for anchovies by 28 boats from each nation, which will be allowed into the Bay of Biscay. A full resumption will be considered based on scientific advice in April.

Ministers have accepted the commission proposal to reintroduce so-called "pulse trawling" in the North Sea by the Dutch fleet ­ a practice under which fish are stunned with an electrical current. WWF says the practice could have highly damaging effects on sharks and rays, which are sensitive to electricity.

"All the consequences are not known and it's very dangerous to go ahead with it," said Caroline Alibert, a WWF European policy officer. The EU banned the practice in 1998.

The organisation also criticised ministers' failure to agree on a long-term plan for plaice and sole.