EU's failure to agree ban on fishing dubbed 'a death sentence for cod'

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The Independent Online

Environmentalists have accused European fisheries ministers of pronouncing a death sentence on North Sea cod, after they swept aside advice to suspend all fishing and instead imposed only limited cuts.

Under a deal struck at 3am yesterday, EU fisheries ministers agreed on a maximum of 15 per cent cuts in quotas of cod in many EU fishing grounds, stopping well short of the demands of scientific experts.

After three intense days of negotiation on a complex package of measures, the EU Fisheries Commissioner, Joe Borg, described the accord as "satisfactory". Sweden was the only EU country not to back the package, arguing that cod was facing a tough struggle to survive off its coast.

The Swedish Agriculture Minister Ann-Christin Nykvist said: "It is our obligation toward the coming generations to act to prevent a collapse of the cod stock in the Baltic Sea. This is a rash decision."

The environmental group WWF said: "EU Fisheries Ministers have effectively written off cod in the North Sea." The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which offers scientific analysis for the EU, advised a zero-catch policy for cod in the North and Irish Sea and west of Scotland. Instead quotas were reduced by 15 per cent.

The number of permitted days at sea were reduced by 5 per cent, rather than the 15 per cent proposed, representing a loss of five days over the year. Fishermen argued that they have already scaled back their fleets massively and that further substantial cuts would make ports unviable.

There are increases for catches of prawn, Western monkfish and Irish Sea plaice, stocks of which are in a relatively healthy state. Permitted catch for whiting and spurdog are also down. Meanwhile a total ban on the right to fish anchovies in the Bay of Biscay was lifted with an overall quota of 5,000 tonnes being set. Ben Bradshaw, fisheries minister for the UK which holds the EU presidency, said the deal would "help conserve fish stocks, preserve the marine environment and help the long-term future of the fishing industry". Mireille Thom, spokeswoman for the European Commission, said she was "disappointed" that the reduction in the number of days at sea was lower than that called for by the Commission. But she added: "Our disappointment is mitigated by the fact that the reduction in the number of days at sea is going to affect more fleets." That refers to a 10 per cent reduction in days for vessels fishing for nephrops, and 8 per cent for beam trawlers, both of which catch some cod by accident. But the WWF said the cod quota for the last three years in total had been above 81,000 tonnes and that the 2006 allowance for fish stocks with large accidental catches of cod have increased compared to last year.

Charlotte Mogensen, a fisheries policy officer with the WWF, said: "It makes no sense to allow fishing on a stock which has collapsed. It is clear that cod has no chance of recovering and this is just the first of many fish stocks we are losing because of the mismanagement of European fisheries."

Chris Davies, a Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament's Fisheries Committee, described the deal as "a shabby political compromise". He said: "It looks as though cod has had its chips. There are only so many fish in the sea, and we are catching them faster than they can breed. By putting short-term interests first, ministers have put at risk the long-term future both of fish and of fishermen."

How much should we catch?

* What do the experts say about cod stocks? The International Council for the Exploration of the Seas says: "Cod stocks in the North Sea, Irish Sea and west of Scotland remain well below minimum recommended levels. The fish are not being given enough chance to reproduce." It wanted a ban in 2006, but ministers refused.

* Cod was once a staple part of the British diet. Is it about to disappear? Many fishermen agree there are not enough fish to fill present quotas. Environmentalists believe cod faces extinction in the North Sea.

* What has caused the crisis? High demand has coincided with the devastating efficiency of modern, mechanised fleets. Fishermen have lobbied ministers to minimise cuts.

* What is the solution? Campaigners want a ban on fishing in key areas to allow stocks to recover. Last year, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution said, over time, fishing should be banned in 30 per cent of UK waters.

* Is a this really the right way to decide on the fate of Europe's fish stock? Each year EU fisheries ministers converge on Brussels. But what the governments ultimately decide, mean negotiation is political rather than purely scientific and decisions are susceptible to short-term lobbying.