We must take a tougher line on fishing to save marine life from further decline

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The folly of our seemingly unshakeable conviction that there will always be "plenty more fish in the sea" has long been apparent to scientists who have studied our dwindling fish stocks. Yesterday the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) published perhaps the most sobering analysis yet of the parlous state of the UK's fisheries. The authors argue that if we continue to harvest the sea on the present industrial scale, our fish populations will eventually collapse. Our waters will share the fate of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, whose once vast cod stocks were wiped out by over-fishing in the early 1990s.

The folly of our seemingly unshakeable conviction that there will always be "plenty more fish in the sea" has long been apparent to scientists who have studied our dwindling fish stocks. Yesterday the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) published perhaps the most sobering analysis yet of the parlous state of the UK's fisheries. The authors argue that if we continue to harvest the sea on the present industrial scale, our fish populations will eventually collapse. Our waters will share the fate of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, whose once vast cod stocks were wiped out by over-fishing in the early 1990s.

The Royal Commission's report, however, does more than merely sound the alarm. It recommends a totally new approach to fishing policy. The marine environment of the entire European Union is governed by a presumption in favour of fishing. The commission thinks that ought to be reversed. Instead of seeking to protect marine life on a stock by stock basis, we should ban fishing in designated areas.

The rationale for this demarcation of the seas is straightforward. Fish in protected areas tend to survive longer and produce more young. As their numbers swell, young fish will inevitably spill outside the protected areas, and into waters where they can be farmed by commercial fishermen. It represents a way of regulating fishing that will not only preserve marine ecology, but - at the same time - provide sufficient stocks for our fishing industry.

What is more, it has been shown to work. A similar scheme operated on Georges Bank, off the North American coast, has been successful in regenerating scallop stocks. The governments of New Zealand and South Africa plan to introduce protected areas in their waters. But our own government seems already to have rejected the idea. The Fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw, says such action would be too drastic; he argues that the reductions made to Scotland's whitefish fishing fleet to protect our North Sea cod stocks have effectively solved the problem of over-fishing. We should, he argues, let these reforms take effect before rushing into any grand new schemes.

This is sheer complacency. While our cod stocks may eventually recover, there is no guarantee that they, or other species, will not be threatened again in the future. The use of ever more intensive fishing methods - some fleets use nets as wide as 50 football pitches - suggests that unless we radically alter our practices there will always be a problem. This is by no means just a British dilemma. Commercially fished populations are down between 15 and 30 per cent the world over. The International Council for the Exploration of the Seas has repeatedly warned that intensive farming of the oceans is unsustainable. It is also vital to recognise that no country can regulate commercial fishing in isolation. Shoals of fish do not respect national boundaries, and there will always need to be a degree of co-operation between nations over fishing rights. Even if we wanted to, Britain could not unilaterally declare one third of our waters protected, because we are bound by the EU's common fisheries policy.

In one sense, this makes it harder for Britain to conserve its fish stocks. The clout of French, Portuguese and Spanish fishermen vis-à-vis their respective governments is substantially greater than that of our fishing industry. It would not be easy to implement an EU-wide scheme to protect the seas. But the apparatus of the EU does mean that if agreement is reached, it could be rapidly implemented. Our government, which likes to proclaim its green credentials, must press for the overhaul of the common fisheries policy.

Fishing communities would undoubtedly suffer. Any government would have a duty to ensure they receive adequate compensation, plus substantial transitional grant aid to their regions. But the pain of those communities would be as nothing compared to what would be felt when the oceans are emptied of fish.

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