Fisheries policy reforms unveiled

The European Commission has promised fishermen a return to "a decent living" under plans to crack down on the plundering of the seas.

A radical reform of the controversial Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) will end a catch quota system which encourages fishermen to dump surpluses back in the sea - adding to the severe depletion of white fish stocks.

The waste must end, said EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki, unveiling sweeping changes she said were designed to bring fish stocks back to "sustainable" levels by 2015.

"Action is needed now to get all our fish stocks back into a healthy state to preserve them for present and future generations," she said.

"Only under this precondition can fishermen continue to fish and earn a decent living out of their activities."

The 28-year-old CFP has been blamed for dwindling stocks and declining fishing communities as scientific evidence about the state of stocks forces ministers to impose tough catch quota limits.

But the Commission says national authorities fail to police the limits, allowing hard-pressed fleets to over-fish. Those obeying the quota rules dump the excesses caught in their nets back in the sea - the so-called "discard" problem.

Ending "discards" is a key aim of the new plan.

The Commissioner insisted: "We have to manage each stock wisely, harvesting what we can, but keeping the stock healthy and productive for the future.

"This will bring us higher catches, a sound environment and a secure seafood supply.

"If we get this reform right. fishermen and coastal communities will be better off in the long run. And all Europeans will have a wider choice of fresh fish, both wild and farm-produced."

Under the new system - when approved by EU fisheries ministers - fishermen must land their entire catch, ending a "discard" policy which means up to half the fish netted are thrown back dead into the sea.

The proposal states: "The waste of food resources and the economic losses caused by throwing unwanted fish back into the sea, a practice know as 'discarding' will be phased out. Fishermen will be obliged to land all the fish they catch."

The annual quota system, in which ministers haggle over national catch levels based on scientific evidence of the state of stocks, will be shaken up, with long-term management plans based on the most accurate scientific advice.

The proposed changes also put more control in the hands of regional fishing authorities, which will be responsible for negotiating individual "trade-able" catch shares, giving local fishing communities more flexibility and control over their businesses.

"General (fishing) policy goals will be prescribed from Brussels, while member states will have to decide and apply the most appropriate conservation measures.

"In addition to simplifying the process, this will favour solutions tailored to regional and local needs."

UK fisheries minister Richard Benyon said the plans were a "vital first step" in reviving the state of Europe's fisheries.

"The current CFP has failed," he said.

"It has not given us healthy fish stocks and it has not delivered a sustainable living for our fishing industry. Only genuine fundamental reform of this broken policy can turn around these failures."

He said "less top-down micro-management from Brussels" was crucial.

"For a start, we need to end the unacceptable practice of throwing dead fish back to the sea. It's a terrible waste of perfectly good food and one of the biggest failings of the CFP," he said.

"We have already made big strides in eliminating discards, implementing bans through our innovative catch quota schemes.

"I want to work with the English fishing fleet around the coast to extend these initiatives to new species like haddock, plaice and whiting.

"We will be discussing with herring and mackerel fishermen whether we can eliminate their discards ahead of the Commission's proposed timetable."

The minister said consumers could help reduce discards by buying a wider range of fish.

"Our Fishing for the Markets project, published today, looked at the barriers to creating markets for these, often less known, fish," he said.

"There's clearly a lot of work that can be done with suppliers and the hospitality sector and we will work with them to help promote these different, but tasty, fish."

The Commission document launches negotiations with ministers and MEPs with the aim of agreeing a reform deal in 2013.