Cutting quotas - the best deal for fishermen

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The story of Cornish fishermen accepting government money for leaving their industry has been highlighted in the Independent's columns. They are among the 164 boats that have been accepted for decommissioning this year, and join those that were successful in the first two years of the scheme. A total of pounds 53m has been made available for this by the Government over five years.

It might seem paradoxical that an important part of the Government's policy for securing a healthy and confident fishing industry is to take measures that obviously lead to pain and some unemployment in communities already under pressure. I know it certainly isn't a cheap policy. It is, however, a necessary one.

Fisheries scientists, both in this country and abroad, tell us that many of our most important stocks are at their lowest historic levels. Indeed, they recommend that catches of plaice and herring in the North Sea and mackerel around our shores be cut by nearly half next year in order to avoid the risk of these stocks disappearing into economic extinction. At all costs we need to avoid the situation that occurred in Canada's Grand Banks where stocks of cod, once internationally famous, have been literally "fished out".

The problem is of too many fishermen, with increasingly sophisticated equipment to find and catch the remaining stocks, chasing too few fish. Conservation - to ensure there are fish for tomorrow's fishermen as well as today's - is the reason that European fisheries ministers have, in recent years, set targets for each member state to reduce their overall fishing "effort". The UK's current means of reducing effort is paying fishermen to leave the industry; the alternative, of restricting the number of days each and every boat can spend at sea, having proved understandably unpopular with the industry.

In pursuing the policy we need to bear in mind that the communities affected need time to adapt. Newlyn has had 16 boats accepted for decommissioning this year. One should not underestimate the impact of this on the locality and there is a need to proceed gradually; equally, there needs to be stability in fisheries management from one year to the next, avoiding sharp changes in quotas as far as we can.

Next year, fisheries ministers will discuss a further round of targets for member states to bring their fleets more into line with available supplies of fish; I will be seeking the best possible deal for our fishermen. Opponents of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which is being debated in the House of Commons today, should realise that if there was no CFP, it would have to be invented. Fish know no national boundaries, so only by international agreement can the issue of conservation, without which the industry has no future, be properly dealt with.

The writer is Fisheries Minister.

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