Plans to save fish stocks are derailed by Spain

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Sweeping changes to Europe's Common Fisheries Policy – in an attempt to stave off total collapse of some fish stocks – had to be put on hold yesterday after a last-minute attempt by Spain to scupper them.

A series of reforms was due to be approved by the European Commission today but the discussion has been postponed after intense lobbying by the Spanish premier, Jose Maria Aznar, who is concerned about their impact on Spain's huge fishing interests.

Mr Aznar telephoned the Commission's president, Romano Prodi, to protest and has been backed byfive other countries who oppose plans to phase out the system of subsidies for modernising fishing boats.

Spain's objections do not augur well for conservationists, who believe over-fishing in Europe has reached crisis proportions.

Any new deal will have to be approved by a qualified majority of member states, but the need for agreement is becoming urgent because the current fisheries rules expire at the end of the year.

A draft of the Commission document underlines the depth of concern about dwindling fish stocks. It argues that the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) "has reached a turning point", that the challenges "are urgent and serious" and that many aspects of policy in the past 20 years have "reached their limits".

In the past two decades, demand for fish has risen and the efficiency of the huge modern fleets has pushed some species to the verge of extinction. For many stocks, the number of mature fish is now half the level of the 1970s and, if current trends continue, the Commission predicts, many fish stocks will collapse. Across the EU, 66,000 jobs were shed in the fishing industry between 1990 and 1998.

The draft document argues: "In this state of crisis there is a need for major change. Reform of the objectives, principles, priorities and instruments of the CFP is more than ever necessary to deliver sustainable development and to ensure that the European fishing industry has a secure future".

The Commission's plan was originally scheduled for approval last week and, after the second delay in two weeks, officials predict there may be no talks until the autumn. Jonathan Faull, the Commission's chief spokesman, said the delay came about because "a little more work is needed", but confirmed Mr Prodi and Mr Aznar had discussed the reforms by phone.

Under the plans, the cash that goes to help fishermen modernise their boats would be scrapped. Instead, there would be subsidies to help them retrain and diversify to get jobs in local industry.

The current system whereby ministers haggle each December over next year's quotas would be replaced by a longer-term system of allocation.

Despite its growing concern about over-fishing, the EU plans to spend €650m (£400) on decommissioning boats and €839m on modernising or building new boats by the end of 2006. The changes have been opposed by a bloc of countries, calling themselves "the friends of fishing" made up of Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Ireland.

Tony Long, director of the Europe office of the World Wide Fund for Nature, said: "We fear the Commission is coming under intense pressure to water down the proposals to meet short-term interests of one or more member state. WWF suspects unwarranted influence behind closed doors."

Catherine Stihler, the fisheries spokeswoman for Labour MEPs in the European Parliament, added: "In the face of pressure from vested interests, the Commission has caved in and kicked its long-awaited fisheries review into touch again. With the current regime due to expire at the end of the year, there is a gaping black hole hanging over the future of EU fishing policy."