EU retreat on cod ban may drive species to extinction

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The Independent Online

Cod, once a staple of the British diet, could be fished close to extinction, environmentalists warned yesterday. They said a deal keeping North Sea fishing grounds open to trawlers was "scandalous".

Under pressure from the Government, the European Commission backed away from plans to close up to a fifth of the North Sea to fishing fleets, to prevent collapse of cod stocks.

Instead, after a night of haggling, fisheries ministers emerged at 5.30am with a series of piecemeal moves, which include a one-day reduction in the days at sea permitted for some fishermen and tougher enforcement of the existing rules.

Environmental groups were furious with Britain for blocking the proposed North Sea closures, little more than two weeks after a report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution proposed more drastic action. It said that, over time, 30 per cent of UK waters should be closed to fishing.

The report highlighted the fate of cod stocks off Newfoundland's Grand Banks, where centuries of fishing ended in the 1990s when Atlantic cod was fished to commercial extinction. Although the disastrous state of cod stocks persuaded ministers to close areas of the Baltic to local trawlers, the Fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw, led opposition to the plans to bar fishing vessels from stretches of the North Sea.

After the talks, Mr Bradshaw said: "The UK has signalled its support for more radical measures, including closed areas, if the state of the stock does not improve. Our aim in these negotiations has been to take the tough decisions necessary to protect those stocks under threat while maximising opportunity for our fishermen to catch stocks that are healthy."

But he welcomed the withdrawal of plans for closed areas and claimed the UK fishing industry "has made the biggest contribution" to efforts to revive cod stocks. Charlotte Mogensen, fisheries officer for the conservation group WWF, said: "For cod, the future looks very bleak because sufficient measures are not being taken.

"Ministers are putting the socio-economic aspects before the recovery of the species. If it continues this way, in the long run there will not be many fisheries to manage. It is not disappointing, it is scandalous.

"There was no sign of any reaction to the warnings. Ben Bradshaw said, 'I cannot accept closed areas in the North Sea but I can accept them in the Baltic because I do not have any fishermen there'."

For the North Sea, days at sea for fishermen were reduced by one per month for all vessels fishing for cod and by two for beam trawlers. But British officials said that this reduction would not apply to vessels using larger mesh sizes.

For deep-sea fish stock, the European Commission had proposed an overall 50 per cent reduction in quotas, but EU ministers agreed to cut them by only 15 per cent.

Mr Bradshaw also highlighted a 188 per cent increase on western Channel sole quotas, a 67 per cent rise for sole in the Western Approaches, a doubling of the quota for monkfish in the North Sea surrounding the north and north-west of Scotland and an increase of a fifth in the south-west, plus a 12 per cent increase in West of Scotland and Irish Sea prawns.

Britain says it has worked harder than its European partners to conserve stocks, particularly on decommissioning boats, though that view is disputed by other countries, including Denmark. But global fish stocks have been depleted by more efficient fishing fleets.

The Green Party said: "They [politicians] will have to bear the blame and shame of their inaction for future generations."