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EU council agrees to back fish discard ban


European politicians have agreed a commitment to ban the "discarding" of usable fish at sea, but were criticised for failing to take strong action to tackle overfishing.

Fisheries ministers meeting to discuss moves to reform the policy which governs all European fishing fleets have agreed there should be an end to discards but no firm date was set for bringing in the ban.

Provisional dates published by the EU council would see discards banned for Pelagic fisheries such as mackerel and herring by January 1 2014.

And a ban on discards in whitefish fisheries such as cod, haddock, plaice and sole would come in on a phased basis starting 12 months later and fully in place by January 1 2018, under the proposals.

Under existing EU rules, fishermen have quotas for certain fish, but can carry on fishing once the limits are reached as long as they do not bring any more of that species to shore.

As a result, tonnes of edible fish which exceed the quota are thrown back to sea as discards, accounting for up to 90% of the total catch in some fisheries - a practice which has prompted public outrage in the UK.

Fisheries minister Richard Benyon said: "After years of pressing to eliminate discards it was always my aim to get the Council to agree to end this wasteful practice as soon as possible.

"While I am disappointed that the Council has not agreed the firm dates that I was seeking, a commitment to eliminating discards is a step in the right direction."

The UK Government, which has been demanding reform of the "broken" Common Fisheries Policy, also claimed victory in winning support for a move away from Brussels micro-management of fisheries to regions having more control.

Ministers also agreed on a move towards long-term plans to manage fisheries, which aims to reduce the annual horse-trading between countries over quotas for how much fish can be caught.

But returning fisheries to a state where stocks are fished sustainably, to end overfishing, may not take place in some areas until 2020 under the agreement.

And it was warned that the Council of Ministers was blocking the introduction of long-term "multi-annual" plans to better manage particular fisheries.

Mr Benyon said: "I came to Luxembourg to achieve fundamental reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, to achieve healthy fish stocks, a prosperous fishing industry and a healthy marine environment - there is still a lot more work that needs to be done but I believe the agreement we have reached is an important step on the way to achieving that."

But Greenpeace oceans campaigner Willie Mackenzie said: "After decades of bad fisheries management that has devastated fish stocks, EU ministers are failing on their promise to overhaul Europe's fisheries management.

"What happened overnight proves a stubborn resistance to change tack, and leaves EU fisheries reform hanging in the balance."

He said timelines for reform were vague and too long-term and the wording on key issues such as ensuring stocks were fished sustainably was "incredibly weak".

"There is a real risk that fish and fishermen are facing another 10 years of overfishing and stock decline, with real consequences for species like cod, hake and tuna," he warned.

Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies, secretary of the cross-party Fish for the Future group in the European Parliament, said progress was only of the most limited kind, and that governments would seek to backslide even on what had been agreed.

He said: "We are half way through the process of trying to reform the Common Fisheries Policy, and judging from what has been announced by the ministers there is a great deal still to be done.

"For governments to say that we should stop overfishing but perhaps not for another eight years is little short of madness.

"The proposed introduction of discard bans through multi-annual plans is made uncertain by the fact that such plans are currently being blocked by the ministers themselves.

"And although Europe has too many boats chasing too few fish, nothing has been determined about the need to reduce over-capacity."

He said the debate now moved to the European Parliament, which must agree reforms, and called on MEPs to work to close the loopholes in the policy and "tie the hands" of those who sought to avoid real change.