Far-reaching plans to close about one-fifth of the North Sea to trawlermen were abruptly dropped last night, as the European Commission caved in to pressure from a group of countries, including Britain.
The climbdown came amid tense talks among fisheries ministers on how to preserve cod stocks from total collapse because of years of intensive fishing by highly-mechanised fleets.
The UK was still fighting against an alternative proposal, which would see North Sea fishermen reduced to two days at sea from 15. The Commission's surprise capitulation over the closed areas infuriated environmentalists. Charlotte Mogensen fisheries officer of the World Wildlife Fund, said: "This reflects poorly on the member states and their unwillingness to adopt such key measures in the name of fish-stock recovery. Only by massive increase in political will to solve the fisheries crisis are we likely to achieve recovery of depleted stocks".
Supporters of the ban say the Commission's proposal had already failed to take on board all the recommendations on fishing bans and reduced catch quotas made by independent experts.
But the British Fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw, and his Scottish counterpart Ross Finnie, said that the ban discriminated against the UK as it failed to take into account that Britain was close to achieving a target of a 65 per cent reduction in cod mortality. Other nations who performed worse should be hit harder, they argued.
The ministers also opposed a reduction in the number of days at sea on the same principle. "The offer on the table still does not take account of the efforts our fleet has made to improve supplies of cod," Mr Finnie said.
The proposals for cod fishing are part of an overall package deal for next year's fishing quotas, and ministers were likely to continue haggling into the night.
The Commission's plan follows the publication of another gloomy assessment from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which proposed a ban on commercial fishing in 30 per cent of United Kingdom waters.