The North Sea must not be allowed to become a dead sea

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The Independent Online

For the past 15 years, European fisheries ministers have found themselves caught between a rock and an increasingly hard place. The rock was the determination of their home fishermen, to carry on fishing as hard as possible – perfectly understandable, because that is what fishermen do, and have been doing since before St Peter cast his nets on the Sea of Galilee. A formidable constituency they are too, with much public support, daily risking their lives to provide us with food, and politicians in every country naturally try to accommodate them.

For the past 15 years, European fisheries ministers have found themselves caught between a rock and an increasingly hard place. The rock was the determination of their home fishermen, to carry on fishing as hard as possible – perfectly understandable, because that is what fishermen do, and have been doing since before St Peter cast his nets on the Sea of Galilee. A formidable constituency they are too, with much public support, daily risking their lives to provide us with food, and politicians in every country naturally try to accommodate them.

But the hardening place was the advice from scientists that fish stocks in the waters around Europe, as in many other parts of the world, were less and less able to bear the greater and greater pressures being placed upon them, not least with the advance of fishing technology in an ever more competitive industry.

Now, for at least one of the fishing countries of Europe, the crunch has come, and that country is Scotland. The North Sea cod stock, the mainstay of Scotland's white fish industry, has been so over-fished that it is on the point of collapse, according to the fisheries scientists advising the EU, who are recommending that the North Sea be closed. This could cause tremendous hardship to the fishing communities of the Scottish north-east coast: thousands of livelihoods would be put at risk, and the Government must seek to address this seriously.

But when Elliot Morley, the fisheries minister, comes to sit down with his fellow EU ministers to discuss what should be done, it is the ecological – not the economic – warning that he must heed. The scientists are recommending closure as a last-ditch measure, to save the fishery from disappearing altogether; a couple more years of fishing, which then wipes it out, will be no use at all to the Scots or anyone else.

Fish stocks do have powers of recovery, but it is becoming clear that they can be depleted to a point where recovery becomes impossible. Anyone who thinks that the bounty of the sea is endless should remember what happened to the world's most celebrated cod fishery, the Grand Banks of Newfoundland; it collapsed in 1992, and has never re-opened.

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