Victory for fishermen over catch quota error

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A group of Clydeside fishermen who took on the Brussels bureaucracy won their battle today over a clerical error which cost them vital fishing catches.

The European Commission, including its most senior fisheries civil servant, repeatedly denied there was any mistake.

But today, at the end of a two-year fight, the fishermen were told what they already knew - that a simple clerical error deprived them of their fishing entitlement under the Common Fisheries Policy in 2007.

The ruling came from Europe's Ombudsman, who investigates complaints from EU citizens about alleged "maladministration" in the EU institutions.

The Ombudsman, P Nikiforos Diamandouros, said the Commission should now admit its mistake and correct the error, although that will be difficult because the fishing cuts it wrongly imposed applied to catch quotas two years ago.

"The mistake might have knock-on effects for subsequent years," he warned.

The Commission now has until the end of April to "give a detailed opinion on the matter".

The mistake was unearthed following a complaint from the Clyde Fishermen's Association, which has 68 vessel-owning members, mostly based in south-west Scotland.

The Association was puzzled when in January 2007 it was told its annual permitted fishing days were being cut by 10%, from 280 to 252, as part of plans protecting depleted cod stocks in West of Scotland and North Sea fishing grounds.

Both areas were at the time on a regime of 280 days at sea, but an EU deal concluded weeks earlier convinced the Clyde men that the cut to 252 days was meant to apply only to the North Sea.

Scottish officials agreed, but throughout 2007 the Commission insisted there was no mistake.

In November 2007, the Association asked UK ministers and EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg to help.

But in January last year, the Commission and its Director-General for Fisheries still claimed they were right and that the West of Scotland fleet contributed "substantially" to the catch of juvenile cod in the area and therefore must reduce its fishing effort, as discussed and approved by EU governments at talks in December 2006.

But the fishermen refused to be convinced and in March last year they turned to the Ombudsman.

The Commission insisted the figures had been checked again, that there was no mistake and that the Ombudsman should close the case.

Today the Ombudsman said there had been a mistake - someone put the reduced allocation of fishing days for North Sea "demersal" boats in the column for West of Scotland boats.

"During his investigation, the Ombudsman found that the Commission had indeed made an administrative mistake in the relevant document concerning the allocation of fishing days," said today's official inquiry report.

"According to the Ombudsman, the data in the columns for the West of Scotland and the North Sea had been erroneously interchanged, as the complainants had alleged.

"Since the mistake went unnoticed, it was included in the final Regulation on the allocation of fishing days for 2007."

He added: "This mistake led to a reduction in the number of fishing days allocated for specific groups of vessels in the West of Scotland.

"The Commission should, as far as is still possible, take the appropriate measures to rectify the error.

"The Commission has not addressed this issue. However, it cannot be excluded that such a possibility still exists, particularly if one considers that the mistake that occurred might have knock-on effects in years to come."