Spanish fishermen strike over rising fuel prices

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The Independent Online

Spanish and Portuguese fishermen, who say they are suffering through what they call the industry's worst crisis in a century, started nationwide strikes over soaring fuel prices today, the latest in a wave of protests sweeping Europe.

Trawlers and larger commercial boats remained docked at ports across both countries, while around 5,000 demonstrators converged on Madrid to hand out 20 tonnes of fish for free in a bid to win public support.

"Cheap Fish, Expensive Diesel: No More Speculation," read one banner in Portuguese at a raucous protest outside the Agriculture Ministry in downtown Madrid. The Spanish fishermen, who blew whistles and chanted slogans criticizing the government, were joined by comrades from France and Portugal.

The strike is set to go on indefinitely. Estimates of the potential cost of the stoppage were not immediately available. The fishing workers are demanding government action to bring down fuel prices, tax breaks and restrictions on the import of cheaper fish from Africa and Latin America

Dozens of people, mostly retirees, pushed and shoved each other to get to trucks dishing out handfuls of hake, Spain's most apprized fish, at the Madrid demonstration.

"Spanish fishing workers are going through the worst crisis of the last 100 years," Javier Garat, head of the Spanish Fishing Confederation, told Cadena SER radio.

Garat said fuel prices have gone up 320 per cent in the past five years. He said many fishermen can no longer afford to take their boats out.

Spain has the EU's largest fishing fleet and is the bloc's most important producer.

Garat's organisation, which comprises 1,400 fishing companies employing 20,000 workers, said the strike could see markets empty of fresh and frozen fish by 16 June.

Fishery sector representatives from across Europe met for strategy talks in Brussels today as a group of 50 Belgians protested outside EU headquarters with flares and banners demanding the 27-nation bloc take action to alleviate the crisis.

"The big problem is the oil prices and nobody has a solution for this problem," said Manu Desutter-Van Hecke, who chaired the meeting.

In France, fishermen have been protesting for more than two weeks, at times blocking oil terminals and ports and disrupting shipping traffic through the English Channel. They demand government aid to cope with prices of diesel, which they say have doubled since November, when the state pledged an aid package.

Many say their livelihoods are threatened by the high costs, and are also demanding a relaxation of EU quotas on how much they can fish so they can try to make up for some of the fuel-related losses.

Portugal's Federation of Fishing Unions said no boats went out of the country's main ports.

Portugal has around 7,000 fishing boats, the fourth-largest fleet in the EU. About 20,000 people work in the sector.