Leading Article: Too many boats, too few fish

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WHEN nations compete for a dwindling natural resource, clashes are likely to occur between the people in the front line. In June Spanish fishermen blocked several ports in northern Spain, to the dismay of tourists, in protest against methods being used by the French to catch tuna in international waters. Now the Spaniards are in conflict with Cornish fishermen for the same reason: the alleged use of drift nets longer than 2.5km, the European Union maximum.

The Spaniards themselves still use lines to catch tuna. Hence their anger as prices fall and stock is depleted by more efficient methods. The Cornishmen are, furthermore, relative new boys on the block: their tuna industry is only a few years old. Some sympathy for the Spanish point of view might seem deserved, since in the fishing industry efficiency tends to be equated with ruthlessness. Taking Spanish practice as a whole, however, it would be misplaced. Spanish fishermen are notorious for their lack of scruples in exploiting fisheries far from home. In this week's episodes, as in others, their behaviour has been unacceptably violent. Such conflicts must be resolved by negotiation, not threats and net-cutting.

Seen in a wider context, the tuna war is a microcosm of a larger battle in a hungry world for the only major source of protein not predominantly farmed by mankind. It is rather as if the world's hardwood forests could be cut down by anyone who came along, with nothing paid for what is taken away. The global marine catch has increased almost five-fold since the Second World War - during which there was practically no deep-sea fishing and stocks were, as in the First World War, amply replenished. There are now more than a million medium-to-large boats. The global catch peaked at an estimated 86 million tons in 1989, but remains unsustainably high and a threat to certain species nearing extinction.

Spain has been in the forefront, along with Portugal, the US, Russia, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, in the development of intensive fishing thousands of miles from home. The pattern is to decimate stock in one zone and then move on. For example, the annual catch of cod off Newfoundland soared to 800,000 tons in the Eighties. Total stock is now put at 200,000 tons. It is not just fish species that are at risk. As tens of thousands of seabird deaths off northerly British shores showed last winter, whole eco-systems could be at risk.

The EU has, to the distress of many fishing communities, done its best to conserve stocks through quotas and other restrictions. But under pressure from constituents and lobbyists, politicians tend to do too little too late. Since fish migrate, even regional organisations cannot control stocks. Only a binding international legal convention can hope to be effective. When governments meet under UN auspices in New York later this month to discuss the issue, they should lay the ground for an agreement imposing a ceiling not just on catches but on the size of all fishing fleets.